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How black and Hispanic votes saved Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Since perceptions are about 90% of politics, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination appeared to be dead in the water after he lost all four of the early contests, including a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.

But South Carolina primary voters turned that around by voting overwhelmingly for Biden, touching off a sudden wave of support that resulted, on Super Tuesday just three days later, in multistate victories and the front-runner status that he holds today.

"I know Joe," said Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest-ranking African American in the House, in the endorsement speech that many credit with Biden's impressive win. "We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us."

Indeed, those three little words -- "Joe knows us" -- speak volumes. Biden may seem old and out of touch to the mostly young supporters of his rival candidate -- and fellow septuagenarian -- Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But the former Delaware senator's experience includes decades of goodwill built up with African American voters, politicians and civil rights leaders.

That mutual familiarity paid off for Biden on Super Tuesday. He racked up about 61% of the black vote in South Carolina, according to exit polls. African Americans, the most loyal constituency in the Democratic Party, reestablished public perceptions of his electability.

And healthy black turnout, as well as a big swing toward Biden by persuadable suburban voters, came close or exceeded that mark across the South on Tuesday. Exit polls indicated an impressive showing with black voters favoring Biden in Virginia (60%), North Carolina (62%), Alabama (72%) and Texas (58%).

The bright spots for Biden's closest rival, Sanders, on Super Tuesday came largely from Hispanic voters, according to exit polls. They gave about half of their votes to Sanders in California, which has the largest number of Democratic convention delegates. He also received 39% of Latino votes in Texas, where Biden narrowly won with 26% of their vote.

Sanders has come a long way since Black Lives Matter disrupted a couple of his rallies in 2016. The black activists represented a rival wing of the progressive left that disagreed with Sanders' approach, which -- to put it perhaps a bit too simply -- racial inequality was a consequence of economic inequality more than racism.

That's a great topic for an academic seminar, but political campaigns don't allow much time for that. As Clyburn suggests, political communities form around shared interests and, just as often, shared grievances.

 

That truism holds regardless of your political party. Witness, for example, how much mileage Donald Trump gained by giving voice to aggrieved Rust Belt families frustrated with the dark side of globalism.

That's Sanders' specialty, too, only his is expressed from a left-progressive vantage point. His successes this time, particularly with Hispanic voters, display how much he has learned in the past four years.

This time he put together teams aimed at growing his base, particularly in "communities of color," a term to which he often switches when asked about his still-lagging appeal to black voters. He's doing very well with voters of color, he points out.

That's true, although he does better with some than he does with others. Major credit for his appeal to Hispanic voters has gone to Chuck Rocha, founder and president of Solidarity Strategies, who describes himself as a "Tex/Mex redneck" in his Twitter profile.

Although the campaign's narrow loss in his native Texas still puts a "spur under my saddle," as Rocha said afterward, the gains the campaign has made from improved outreach to minorities has helped Sanders' campaign to live on along with Biden's after their other major rivals have dropped out.

Bottom line? Voters of color, like other voters, don't want to be taken for granted. They want to hear from politicians who want to hear from them. Or to put in Clyburn's terms, they want to know candidates who want to know them.

(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2020 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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