Conservatives look to crack Biden's black-and-white coalition

Analysis: Whites with racial resentment and African Americans form the core of the former vice president's support. That could be his greatest strength — or his undoing.
Image: Joe Biden speaks at the New Hampshire Democratic Party state convention in Manchester on Sept. 7, 2019.
Those twin pillars of Biden's support — whites who harbor a high degree of racial resentment, and African Americans — represent the most compelling and vexing aspects of his candidacy for his loyalists and his foes.Gretchen Ertl / Reuters file

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — Tavia Galonski cringes when she hears former Vice President Joe Biden talk about race.

A black Ohio state lawmaker who represents an overwhelmingly white Akron-based district, Galonski is not the only Democrat who feels that way.

Biden can sound out of touch even to the less-woke folks in his own party, whether he's reminiscing about his relationships with segregationists or offering remedies for the lingering effects of slavery.

During the last Democratic debate, his response to a question on the latter included a suggestion that parents turn on "record players" for their young children and his plan to triple federal Title I education funds — another conflation of race and poverty by Biden, who has struggled with his articulation of those issues in the context of education for years.

Galonski, who adores Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., plans to vote for Biden in the Democratic presidential primary anyway, and wants to become a delegate for him to the party's convention next summer.

"I think he's an old dog, so he’s not going to learn any new tricks," she said in a telephone interview with NBC News. "I'm not excited for Biden. I just know in my heart he's the only possible hope for Ohio to go against Trump. I honestly believe that in my fiber."

It's the the cringe factor that fascinates conservatives at the Club for Growth, a Washington-based political action group that has been digging deep into polling on the Democratic front-runner's support and looking for ways to stop him from winning his party's nomination. Biden, the Club has found, is most popular among what it regards an ostensibly incongruous set of constituencies: whites who harbor a high degree of racial resentment and African Americans.

"There's a paradox there," said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, which made its name promoting GOP primary candidates who favor limited government, low taxes and free trade. "There's an inherent tension."

Now, in an admittedly unusual turn for the Club, the organization is focused on communicating with black Democrats — to help persuade them that Biden doesn't represent their interests.

Playing in the Democratic primary is a mission that arises out of necessity for a well-funded group that can't get behind all of the items on President Donald Trump's agenda but wants to see him re-elected. Targeting black voters is a function of mining data and concluding that his appeal to whites with racial resentment could cost him with black voters.

Those twin pillars of Biden's support represent, at once, the most compelling and vexing aspects of his candidacy for his loyalists and his foes — and in many ways, their sentiments are shaping the internal debate Democrats are having as they pick their champion to face off against Trump next year.

For example, Democrats must decide whether they will go for the "big, structural change" promised by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — whose anti-establishment promises to clean up Washington and Wall Street could appeal to populists across the partisan divide — or the "return to normalcy" type candidacy of Biden, who presents a case for relative stability as a remedy for Trump.

That fight is playing out against the backdrop of Biden's argument that he is the most "electable" of the Democratic candidates. His case will be tested in part by primary voters' reaction to a House impeachment inquiry now focused on whether the president committed offenses that warrant removal from office when he pushed Ukraine to open an investigation into the Biden family.

Biden's broader challenge is to keep his constituencies together. The Club for Growth, like his primary opponents, would like to pull them apart. Tamping down black support for Biden works as both a primary and general election strategy for anyone who believes he is the biggest threat to Trump.

The Club is betting that if push comes to shove, relatively conservative Democratic whites who could be swing voters in a general election don't really have a second-choice Democrat — while black voters might move on to one of Biden's primary rivals. There are indications that Warren has made progress with black voters.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month showed Biden has a commanding lead with African American Democrats at 49 percent — though only 9 percent of all voters surveyed said they had made up their mind about which candidate to support. Warren was at 13 percent with black voters, good for second among Democrats. And a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday had Biden at 36 percent with black voters and Warren in second with 20 percent.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a national co-chairman of Biden's campaign, said there are three main reasons African American voters who support Biden are in his corner: They see him as a strong proponent of civil rights; they view him as "authentic" in his empathy for their problems because of the struggles he's battled through in watching loved ones die; and they believe he served as a reliable "wing man" for America's first black president, Barack Obama.

Richmond allowed for a fourth, when asked: "African Americans know that they probably that they have the most to lose if Donald Trump is re-elected."

"You know all the instances now that African Americans are targeted and they feel unsafe," he said. "He is the person that best beats our immediate problem, and that is Donald Trump."

There are reasons to think Biden's counterintuitive coalition is neither a fluke, nor a combination that is impossible for a Democratic nominee to hold together. He built a 36-year Senate career on the strength of a constituency balanced between black voters in Wilmington and rural Delaware and moderate whites across the state.

Moreover, even in the post-Civil Rights Act era, Democratic Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Obama all appealed specifically to both black voters and white moderates in the primary, the general election or both — even as the parameters of party coalitions shifted. If Biden is to follow in their footsteps, he'll need a similarly balanced appeal.

His supporters were thrilled with his speech last month at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four schoolgirls were murdered in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963, and believe that he staked his candidacy — launched, he has said, because of Trump's response to violent anti-Semitic demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2018 — on contrasting with the president's treatment of minorities.

Still, the Club for Growth sees a chance to drive a wedge into Biden's base now.

McIntosh said the Club plans to spend upward of $10 million in the Democratic primaries. During the first debates of the season in June, the group placed ads hitting Biden on his record on racial issues and updated it later to include clips of Harris criticizing his anti-busing votes in the Senate in the 1970s.

In late August, WPA Intelligence employed what it described as standard academic questions to determine levels of racial resentment and white anxiety among white Democratic primary voters in states that vote on or before the Super Tuesday primaries March 5. Among white Democrats, 62 percent displayed low levels of racial resentment, 16 percent showed moderate levels of racial resentment and 22 percent had high levels of racial resentment.

Within the latter category, Biden was the first choice with 39 percent, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren with 14 percent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 10 percent and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 6 percent, according to a memo WPA sent to Club for Growth. Warren was first for whites with low levels of racial resentment, with 26 percent, followed by Biden at 23 percent, Harris at 11 percent and Sanders at 9 percent.

African American voters preferred Biden by a 43 percent to 11 percent margin over Harris, with Sanders at 10 percent and Warren at 9 percent. The overall preference poll, which showed Biden leading Warren 29 percent to 17 percent, with Sanders at 13 percent and Harris at 9 percent, included 1,000 Democratic primary voters and carried a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent. Extra "oversample" interviews were conducted with white voters to bring the universe of respondents to 1,000 for the racial resentment data, according to the memo.

The direction of those numbers are supported by work done at the MIT Election Lab.

"All else being equal, Biden’s vote share increases by 27 points going from the least to the most racially resentful primary voter. Meanwhile, more racially progressive Democrats — especially racially progressive whites — side heavily with Warren," Alexander Agadjanian, a research associate at the lab wrote in The Washington Post.

With Warren running neck and neck with Biden in Iowa, New Hampshire and national polls, the battle over black voters currently aligned with him could make or break his candidacy.

Galonski's take on the primary suggests Biden's support among at least some of his black backers is a matter of pragmatism rather than affinity.

She attended a fundraiser for Harris earlier this year and wants the California senator to be "tsarina" someday, but she doesn't think Harris is the smart play for Democrats now.

"We're not ready for it," she said wistfully.

In other words, Galonski backs Biden in large part because of — not despite — the support he has from whites who harbor racial resentment.

"They never ever want to be called a racist — they just don’t like where Trump has kind of boxed them in," she said of some of the white voters in her district who aren't "going to burn the cross in my yard" but may hold onto stereotypes.

"They can pick the least crazy uncle. He’s still our uncle, and he’s still the white guy," she said. "He’s going to be the vote that’s still going to make it all right for them, ... If you get them in a room and start screaming at them, 'You guys picked Trump and you’re the reason we’re in this mess,' they’re going to go more for Trump."