The fulcrum of this year’s Democratic presidential nomination race likely took place this past weekend not in South Carolina, as the national press portrayed it, but in Selma, Alabama, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. On Sunday, Rep. John Lewis, who is suffering from stage 4 pancreatic cancer, surprised the crowds by making his way to the site where, 55 years prior, he and other marchers for voting rights were violently attacked by state troopers. Most of the media, meanwhile, focused instead on Rep. James Clyburn’s heartfelt — and crucial — endorsement of Joe Biden, who had been floundering in Democratic primary contests but on Saturday soared to victory in the Palmetto State.
Yet it was the “Salute to Selma” event that brought civil rights and service organizations out in droves to not only celebrate a momentous turning point for the nation, but also to organize for the present. One woman who traveled from my church community in Durham to attend told me it was meaningful to her that Biden was there as well, not as a newcomer to such events, but as a familiar figure and a person she believes that she can trust.
Rather than placing these votes along a straight continuum between the left and the right, it would be better to think about black voters in their own particular contexts.
My church sister saw that Biden wanted to commemorate the moment, and she took it as a signal that he would carry on the fight for black voting rights in the face of current efforts to disenfranchise and suppress black voters. She pointed out that President Donald Trump should have been there as well, but that she wasn’t surprised he didn’t care. She also noted that Bernie Sanders “didn’t feel the need to be there.” To her, his failure to mark the moment spoke volumes, too.
The results of the South Carolina primary sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party electorate, reviving Biden’s candidacy when many thought he was too far gone to recover after Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren had much stronger showings in earlier contests.
Biden's decisive win allowed him to end the intraparty argument over which candidate was best positioned to fend off Sanders’ leftward-push, leading to his sweep of the Southern states participating in Super Tuesday, as well as unexpected prizes in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Texas. With these decisive wins, he has now re-established himself as the front-runner, with Sanders facing an uphill climb to wrest the nomination away.
Since Biden’s reversal was powered by support from the overwhelming majority of black voters in a state with a very black Democratic electorate, pundits immediately began to frame these Southern black voters as moderates who chose Biden for his relatively cautious stances on health care and taxes in comparison to Sanders’ and Warren’s bolder platforms. Less generous Bernie supporters dismissed black voters as low information voters casting ballots against their interests. On Monday night, filmmaker and avid Sanders surrogate Michael Moore outright dismissed South Carolina Democrats as red-state voters who aren’t representative of the American electorate.
But perhaps they were more representative than the Sanders campaign realized. In retrospect, South Carolina was the miner’s canary of this primary race. As such, they signaled something much more than a desire for moderation.
It was reported that Democratic Party leaders were working behind the scenes to find an alternative to Sanders, a democratic socialist who has long labeled himself an independent. But black voters like the ones who pushed Biden to big victories in South Carolina, and then in Virginia, Alabama and North Carolina, aren’t The Establishment, and it would be a mistake to characterize them as moderate, or even, as certain pundits maintain, somewhat conservative. Rather than placing these votes along a straight continuum between the left and the right, it would be better to think about black voters in their own particular contexts.
For most of these voters, the main concern isn’t the radicalism of their chosen primary candidate but the recklessness of the current president. Removing Trump is their primary — and in some cases only — concern. Biden, who stood firmly behind President Barack Obama for two terms, is less a compelling candidate than a reset button.
Biden is a known quantity and someone who was loyal to their favorite president — and he evidently scares Trump. Black voters noticed that Trump’s scheme to try and smear Biden was so blatantly problematic that it got him impeached by Congress.
And Black voters over 45 have lived long enough to see the history made by Obama, but also have an even longer memory of the disappointment and shortcomings of candidates who failed. They’ve surveyed the polarized political landscape and bitterly divided Congress, and they doubt that a Sanders’-style political revolution is even a remote possibility in an age when just voting to fund the government is regularly up for debate. Many of them admired the grit and talent of Warren but had no faith that white men in any significant numbers would support a woman for president, even if she was the best choice.
The entire black constituency is not unified behind Biden, however; there’s a significant generational split, with many younger voters backing Sanders. These younger voters grew up in the shadow of new possibilities presented by Obama’s victories. For them, the first election they participated in or can even recall was an election of phenomenal change, where a black candidate defied all expectations to win back-to-back terms as president. These are voters who know that hope has worked and believe it can work again, so they are open to Sanders’ critiques of the high costs of college and income inequality, and they agree there’s an urgent need for change.
The race is far from over at this point. The support of younger black voters shows that Sanders has some appeal in black communities, but it’s not only strategy that has persuaded the bulk of black voters to support the former vice president instead. Sanders has made tremendous gains in Latino communities in Nevada and California by pouring resources into a complex ground game in diverse Latinx communities, and perhaps there are opportunities to make similar inroads with black voters outside the South. But until now, Sanders’ ground game has been missing from the traditional networks within southern black communities, just as the candidate himself was on the 55th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, where folks gathered to recall just what it took to get the vote in the first place.