By Simon Lewis
ATLANTA (Reuters) – Top Democratic White House contenders will court black voters in Atlanta on Thursday in hopes of challenging former Vice President Joe Biden’s dominance with a voting bloc that is crucial to their 2020 election chances.
The Democratic presidential debate in the majority-black Southern city on Wednesday night put a focus on African-Americans, who make up about a quarter of Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers in presidential nominating contests.
Biden, who served as No. 2 to Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, touted his long-standing relationship with the African-American community. Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor who has been rising in opinion polls, acknowledged the hurdles he still faced with winning over black voters.
In an effort to build support, Buttigieg will speak on Thursday at a conference of civil rights activist Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.
U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who also trail Biden in black support, will both speak at historically black colleges and universities in Atlanta.
For many African-American voters, like other Democratic voters, getting Republican President Donald Trump out of office in November 2020 overshadows other considerations.
A Sept. 16-20 Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll found that 27% of blacks — a plurality — said they preferred a candidate who “can beat President Trump,” while 16% wanted someone who could create jobs and 10% wanted someone who is “strong on healthcare.”
During the debate, Trump’s campaign sent an email citing economic gains for black Americans during his presidency.
But retired nurse Martha HardyHoward, 65, grew up during the segregation era in the South and fears Trump’s presidency has uncorked racist sentiments once again.
She is leaning towards voting for Biden in Georgia’s March primary but is also looking closely at Warren and Buttigieg.
“We really need someone with experience in the White House right now,” said HardyHoward, who is black.
PRAGMATISM VS PROGRESSIVEPLANS
Biden is targeting diverse early voting states South Carolina and Nevada to build a lead in the Democratic nominating contest.
On Thursday, he will meet with Southern mayors in Atlanta before travelling to campaign in South Carolina, where six in 10 Democratic voters are black.
People close to Biden say he is not taking the state for granted and he has made his case by visiting himself and also through surrogates including local pastors, politicians and his wife, Jill.
“Voters know who Joe Biden is and what he stands for,” an aide said. “The onus is on the rest of the field to show that they can appeal to a broader segment of the Democratic electorate than they have so far.”
Biden’s support is especially strong among older African-Americans, leading his progressive rivals to target younger black voters.
“Older black voters tend to be more pragmatic, wanting to protect gains that have been realized to date,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “Younger voters tend to be more ideological and open to disruption and are less risk-averse.”
Buttigieg is rising in the polls in the less diverse early voting states Iowa and New Hampshire but has been plagued by questions about his relationship with the black community in South Bend.
Buttigieg’s struggle with black voters “shows how getting white support isn’t enough in and of itself to start winning over black voters,” Johnson said.
Warren has made a more sustained effort at building ties with the black community, he said, visiting historically black schools and working with black women activists.
A Morning Consult poll in September found that while Biden had the support of 40% of black voters, a growing number of African-American voters were naming Warren as their second choice.
Atlanta resident Kendall Boone, 28, said he liked Warren’s plans, such as her proposal to cancel student debt, but might still vote for Biden, whom he sees as the strongest opponent to Trump.
“Maybe it’s not the time for that right now,” Boone said of Warren’s progressive platform. “This election is about who’s going to beat Trump.”
(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by James Oliphant, Trevor Hunnicutt and Chris Kahn; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Cooney)