When 20 candidates take the stage for the first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday and Thursday, no one among them will arrive in Miami as the actual front-runner. Pundits have been telling us otherwise by pointing to polls that show Joe Biden is in the lead. It is simply too early to make such claims.
Biden is relying on name recognition and his time as vice president under Barack Obama. He has convinced the pundits that he is the candidate most likely to beat Trump in 2020. But his political record—which includes longtime support of a crime bill that has inflicted decades of harm to communities of color and his long support of the Hyde amendment (despite a recent reversal)—represent a career that is not likely to win the support of many women of color, or the voters who comprise the multiracial coalitions that are pivotal to the Democrats taking back the White House next year. Declaring Biden the front-runner at this point is both premature and irresponsible.
The candidate that speaks directly to women of color and the new American majority will be the party’s front-runner. Early polls have shown strong support from black women for Biden, leading some to assume he has lasting appeal, but what I’m hearing on the ground doesn’t align. Rather, these polls have measured name ID, and as his record gets examined by black women and other women of color, his support will dissipate.
On this score, Biden is his own worst enemy. The more voters learn of his record and hear him speak, the less electable he appears. Recent numbers out of Iowa back this up: Biden’s numbers are dropping, from 32% in December to 27% in March to 24% last week. The poll also shows an important enthusiasm gap: Only 29% of Biden supporters are “extremely enthusiastic” about voting for him, compared to 39% of supporters who are enthusiastic about other candidates. Enthusiasm matters for organizers, small-dollar donors, and voter turnout.
Women of color represent nearly one-fifth of all primary voters and are one-quarter of the voters in the swing states of Nevada, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Florida. Women of color are historically the Democratic Party’s most loyal voting bloc. Furthermore, women of color are among the most effective and influential organizers on the ground, with powerful networks that have the ability to organize and mobilize a diverse coalition of voters. When women of color talk, people listen. Let’s be clear: Biden is losing the hearts and minds of women of color.
His belated non-apology to Anita Hill suggests he hasn’t learned lessons from the #MeToo movement. And then, just last week, Biden defended his “civil” associations with segregationists in the Senate. When admonished by Sen. Cory Booker about this stance, Biden pushed back and said it is Booker who should apologize (“he should know better”) and further claimed that he (Biden) has been with “the civil rights movement his whole career.” Remember: Biden’s motivation for entering the race was his fury with Trump’s “moderating” response to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. (“There are good people on both sides.”) But by arguing that the white segregationists in the Senate were worthy of respect, Biden has effectively done the same thing as Trump: made an argument that racists are decent people. Women of color will not get behind a candidate who takes that stand.
Contrast Biden to the campaigns of the other candidates in the race, specifically those who are directing their policy goals to the issues that matter most to women of color. Julián Castro is promoting an innovative police accountability in his platform. Elizabeth Warren has proposed student loan forgiveness, including a program specifically addressed to graduates of historically black colleges and universities and native colleges. Kamala Harris advocates raising teacher pay. Bernie Sanders continues to argue in favor of Medicare for All. Booker supports reparations. Each of these candidates is offering detailed policy plans on issues that are fundamental to the political vision of women of color. In making their case on these issues, the appeal of these candidates among women of color is growing.
Name recognition a year out will not determine the nominee, but women of color will. The debates provide the broader public a chance to discern which candidates are with us and for us: who we trust to enact a political future centered on racial, economic, and gender justice.
The reality is that the core, winning Democratic base will be made up primarily of women, people of color, and young folks—especially women of color—not white male voters who are three times more likely to vote for Republicans. On the debate stage, the candidates will need to inspire and motivate this new American majority base to win. Any pundit or pollster who says that Biden is the most likely to win is willfully ignoring 2018 and the women of color who will decide this race.
Recent history shows that women of color can make or break momentum. Just six weeks ago Warren went from long shot to front-runner after impressing the audience at the She the People forum in Texas.
Women of color, and the Democratic base broadly, want inspiration and specific plans for realizing racial, gender, and economic justice. We want candidates who speak with authenticity and political courage. In the most important election in more than 50 years, we all seek out the candidate with the highest chance of winning. Of course, we want to endorse a candidate who is electable because the prospect of a Trump re-election is abhorrent. But let us be more precise about what we mean: A truly electable candidate is one who stands for justice and will appeal explicitly to the hearts and minds of the multiracial communities that make up the new American majority.
Aimee Allison is founder and president of She the People, an organization that elevates the political voice of women of color. She recently hosted the first presidential forum for women of color in Houston, Texas.