Can Kamala Harris Repeat Obama’s Success With Black Voters? It’s Complicated

Can Kamala Harris Repeat Obama’s Success With Black Voters? It’s Complicated

Senator Kamala Harris attended the Pink Ice Gala hosted by the local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Columbia, S.C., on Friday. It was one of her first public appearances after announcing her presidential candidacy.CreditCreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

COLUMBIA, S.C. — As Senator Kamala Harris attempts her own version of former President Barack Obama’s historic rise from first-term senator to the White House, one of her political tests will be trying to secure the overwhelming support from black voters that buoyed Mr. Obama in 2008. Ms. Harris wants that support, but it does not come automatically.

In many ways, she is well positioned: Ms. Harris is the most high-profile and politically connected black woman ever to run for president, and she can also draw on her powerful alumni networks from Howard University, one of the most prominent historically black colleges, and Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest black sorority.

Yet interviews with more than 30 black voters and political leaders in early primary states like South Carolina and her home state, California, show that Ms. Harris faces challenges. She will have to persuade black activists skeptical of her record as a prosecutor; overcome sexism and a bias on the part of some voters that a female candidate cannot beat President Trump; and work to gain broader support from black men, who generally expressed more wariness about Ms. Harris in interviews than black women.

She would also need to win over left-leaning young black voters, some of whom were ultimately disenchanted by Mr. Obama’s presidency and may value political ideology more than racial solidarity.

Ms. Harris is aiming to appeal to voters of all races, of course. But black voters are a core constituency of the Democratic Party, and they will be decisive in key primaries like South Carolina’s. The 2020 Democratic field is expected to be crowded and competitive, so an advantage with black voters will be crucial — as Mr. Obama found in 2008. Ms. Harris is not likely to be the only black candidate reaching out to black voters, and several white candidates are sure to make enthusiastic pitches to these voters as well.

[Check out the Democratic field with our new candidate tracker.]

Ms. Harris has never been in a race where black voters made up such a sizable portion of the electorate, and she is already facing some questions after just her first week as a candidate.

“Didn’t she do the three strikes stuff?” asked Tyrone Brown, a 48-year-old Columbia, S.C., resident, as he received a haircut and a shave. He was referring to Ms. Harris’s decision not to endorse a public effort to reduce the prison population by changing California’s punitive “three strikes” sentencing law. “I don’t know, I need to see her devotion to the African-American community.”

Across the country in Oakland, Calif., Kijani Edwards, 34, was also wary. “Ten years ago, I was moved by Obama. I was in tears in November of 2008, we all celebrated up and down,” he said.

But Mr. Obama did not bring the changes Mr. Edwards expected. “The banks got bailed out,” he said. “Interest rates got raised on the very citizens who bailed them out.”

“I’m tired of having the conversation of voting for the lesser of two evils,” he added, referring in part to Ms. Harris.

[Read here about Kamala Harris’s kickoff rally.]

Ms. Harris has long drawn comparisons to Mr. Obama: Both began their political careers in urban, liberal centers and won Senate seats, becoming two of only 10 black senators in history.

Mr. Obama, too, had to win over some black voters: A year before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, polls showed him trailing his main Democratic primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, among black voters. It was not until after Mr. Obama stunned Mrs. Clinton by winning in Iowa, a state dominated by white voters, that black voters began to coalesce around him.

Ms. Harris officially kicked off her presidential campaign in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

Ms. Harris starts out with an apparently strong base of support among older black women, the most reliable Democratic voting bloc. Black women’s votes helped propel Mr. Obama to the nomination in 2008 and helped Mrs. Clinton beat back a primary challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Ms. Harris handily won a presidential poll among women of color published in December 2018 by the political group She the People. Ms. Harris’s strategists have also conducted internal polling that they say shows backing from older black women.

“Of course, I’m leaning toward us,” said Tammie Coleman, a 56-year-old health care worker in Columbia who was shopping for groceries at Walmart. “But honestly I just want a Democrat. Someone with some sense.”

But young black activists have been troubled by what they see as a criminal justice record that undercuts Ms. Harris’s claim to be a civil rights ally. Millennial voters are paying attention: They are more likely to hear about a candidate on social media, where criticism of Ms. Harris’s tenure as a prosecutor has circulated, and their political consciousness has been shaped by the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.

“Any black person that participates in a system that’s inherently racist, upholds it,” said Charles Lee, a 35-year-old Berkeley, Calif., resident, speaking on the day Ms. Harris announced her presidential run.

While critics have decried some of her actions like upholding convictions obtained through official misconduct and opposing statewide standards for body cameras, Ms. Harris has said she worked to change California’s system from within and started programs to divert low-level drug offenders away from prison and into schools and jobs long before other district attorneys were following suit.

Criminal justice reform and addressing issues like police brutality are not peripheral issues for the younger generation of black voters, but a litmus test for a candidate, said DeJuana Thompson, founder of the millennials-focused advocacy group Woke Vote, and Cornell Belcher, a political strategist who conducted polling for both Obama campaigns.

“I’m going to have some point of caution with anybody who used to be a prosecutor,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which mobilizes black voters.

“The entire system is flawed, the way that people are prosecuted, and the unfairness that black people experience in the court system,” Ms. Brown said.

Perceptions of candidates are fluid this early in the campaign, and Ms. Harris has a year to introduce herself to the public and defend her record before voting begins in the 2020 Iowa caucuses. On Monday night at a town hall-style meeting in Des Moines televised on CNN, Ms. Harris drew attention for saying she would be O.K. with eliminating private insurers in an effort to achieve Medicare-for-all.

Her campaign, in a statement issued after this article first published online, expressed optimism about her prospects.

“She’s only been a candidate for one week and we’ve already seen unprecedented enthusiasm for her candidacy that cuts across demographics, background, income, and region,” said Ian Sams, campaign press secretary. He added that in her entire career, “she has defied expectations at every turn and succeeded.”

Ms. Harris is not alone among current and potential 2020 Democrats who may face skepticism from some black voters. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was an architect of the 1994 crime bill that many criminal justice advocates detest, and others, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have previously taken positions on issues like gun control that are controversial on the left.

Political scientists who specialize in studying black voters’ decision-making say Ms. Harris’s presidential candidacy also represents an intriguing case study of how they may weigh race against gender on the national political stage. Research analyzing what black voters do when selecting between male and female black candidates has largely been confined to local races, said Theodore R. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.


Ms. Harris has more than a year to introduce herself to the public and defend her record before the 2020 Iowa caucuses.CreditJim Wilson/The New York Times

If Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey decides to run, as expected, research suggests he could siphon black male voters from Ms. Harris, Mr. Johnson said. Black men vote for black female candidates in higher numbers than their white male counterparts, he said, but the presence of Mr. Booker could upend that equation.

“Party is, by far, the controlling factor in how black folks vote, so if Kamala Harris was against Donald Trump, she doesn’t have to worry about losing black men to Donald Trump any more than Hillary Clinton had to worry about it,” Mr. Johnson said. “But in a primary, if both Booker and Harris are running and both of them have viable candidacies — which is another requirement — then black men are likely to defect from Kamala at a noticeable rate.”

“It’s the gender card that helps him with black men,” he said.

Gender came up in South Carolina last week, in interviews with black male voters about Ms. Harris in barbershops, on college campuses and at grocery stores. Several used terms — like “strength” and “aggressive” — that political scientists view as code language for questioning women’s leadership.

Ms. Harris attracted national attention grilling Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Jeff Sessions during Senate hearings, to the point that Mr. Sessions admitted he was “nervous.”

“She’s a woman,” said Nathaniel Stewart, a 58-year-old barber. “And we need strong backs right now. I don’t know if she can pull off that type of strength to take on Trump. I’d rather Cory.”

Tyrone Hutchinson, 40, said he thought it was time for a woman to become president, but he said some black men with “traditional values” would not support Ms. Harris. Mr. Brown said he preferred Mr. Booker because he did not think Ms. Harris could be “aggressive” enough to “battle with Trump.”

James Moore, a 62-year-old truck driver, said while he could vote for a black woman, he would prefer Mr. Booker or Mr. Biden, because he wondered if the country was ready to elect a black woman.

“Ms. Harris seems like a decent person,” Mr. Moore said, “but I just don’t think she’d have a chance, and I don’t want to throw away my vote.”

But nonwhite women — more than men — represent the core voting base of the Democratic primary and are arguably the most important constituency for any Democratic nominee. At Ms. Harris’s first two public appearances since announcing her candidacy, the Pink Ice Gala in South Carolina and her Oakland kickoff rally Sunday, black, Latina and Asian women turned out in droves to witness the launch of her candidacy.

Rozena Harten, of Oakland, said she did not believe Ms. Harris’s candidacy depended on black male support.

“I think black women are more involved,” Ms. Harten said. “I’m tired of men.”

Tiffany Stevenson, 44, also a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, said she was “really energized” by Ms. Harris’s speech at the Oakland rally. “I think it shows the type of America I think America wants to become.”

In 2014, a research paper from the Center for American Progress, a liberal advocacy organization, argued that the main lesson from Mr. Obama’s victory in 2008 was that the Democratic Party needed to invest more in organizing and motivating nonwhite women, and specifically black women.

“As their numbers increase and their participation grows, women of color will increasingly have the chance to sway electoral results, influence which candidates run and win, and play a greater role in shaping the policy agenda,” the paper argued.

The author of that paper? Maya Harris, then a senior fellow at the organization.

Ms. Harris is now the chairwoman for her sister’s presidential campaign.

Stacey Solie contributed reporting from Oakland, Calif.


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