The Democratic presidential candidates have a Catch-22 problem. They have no chance of ousting President Donald Trump from the Oval Office without a massive turnout of black voters, especially in the five states that will decide the White House.
Yet, there is absolutely no sign, so far, that this turnout will ever happen. The problem is not with Trump, but with the top tier Democratic presidential candidates.
Amy Klobuchar is the latest to fall victim to the problem. She has been roundly raked over the coals for the prosecution of a then-black teen, Myon Burrell, for murder. The teen is no longer a teen but a fast approaching middle-aged man who has been in prison since his teen years.
There is lots of inferential evidence that he was wrongly accused and convicted, and lots of the usual biased racial overtones to the prosecution. Klobuchar virtually guaranteed that it would continue to dog her on the campaign trail when she did not walk back her role in the prosecution. Then there are the others.
Joe Biden still routinely gets raked over the coals for cheerleading the Clinton crime bill in the 1990s. Pete Buttigieg gets picketed and hectored for not doing enough about the police murder of a black man and the alleged neglect of poor black neighborhoods in South Bend.
Michael Bloomberg, no matter how much good stuff he has to say about combatting black poverty, police misconduct and his courting of black elected officials, will continue to have his support of New York’s “stop and frisk” laws and downplaying of redlining tossed up in his face on the campaign trail. Both are sore spots for many blacks, and rightly so. Bloomberg’s wrenching apologies for both missteps mean little to the black critics.
Then there’s the curious case of Bernie Sanders. Sanders has tried mightily to put forth big, sweeping initiatives to combat police abuse, mass incarceration and special programs to deal with chronic black poverty. But that gets buried in his stock bashing of wealth inequality, blasting of the big corporation and Wall Street, and Medicare for all.
Finally, there’s Elizabeth Warren. Like Sanders, she has come late to the racial game. She has missed few chances to brand just about anything that smacks of race in the negative as racist. Like Sanders, she made her reputation by hammering Wall Street and railing against wealth inequality. That’s a great populist stance, and it has made her the darling of progressives.
But without an explicit policy edge to it for blacks, it falls flat as a campaign issue that will excite any racial passions.
This brings it back to the worrisome concern about black voter turnout. Remember, it is the number, not percentage of black voters who turn out that will spell the difference for the 2020 nominee. The 2008 election decisively proved that the presidential election is a pure numbers game.
If black voters had not turned the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries into a virtual holy crusade for Barack Obama, and if Obama had not openly at times and subtly at others stoked the black vote, he could easily have been just another failed Democratic presidential candidate.
Through its voter education, awareness, and mobilization campaigns, the NAACP played a huge role in galvanizing and boosting the numbers of black voters, nearly all votes for Obama. It was part race, part pride, and a sense of history in the making that went into Obama’s epic win.
The mass rush by blacks to the polls was the single biggest reason that Obama carried the traditional must-win states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and broke the Republican presidential grip on North Carolina and Virginia. 2012 was no different.
The enthusiasm level for Obama was as high as it was in 2008 among most black voters. Polls showed that blacks were the most optimistic that the country was heading in the right direction. That was due almost exclusively to their backing of Obama. That was the key factor in getting numbers of voters to show up at the polls on Election Day.
Obama kept the enthusiasm level high by holding a black leadership conference and unveiling what was as close to a white paper the White House has issued on race. It ticked off a checklist of initiatives from health care, job stimulus and small business aid that have benefited blacks. The position paper was an obvious counter to the shouts from some black activists, and on occasion the Congressional Black Caucus, that Obama hadn’t said or done enough about the chronic high unemployment, failing public schools, high incarceration rates and worries about home foreclosures and the poverty crisis facing black communities. It worked.
The top tier Democratic presidential candidates this time are not Obama. They are white male and females with racial baggage. Whether that baggage is enough to derail the crusade of black voters the eventual nominee will need to oust Trump remains to be seen.
But it’s that uncertainty that remains the Catch-22 for Democrats.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is author of “What’s Right and Wrong with the Electoral College” (Middle Passage Press). He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One Network and the host of the Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Pacifica Radio Los Angeles.