‘Consequences and repercussions’: Post-debate Democratic infighting endangers Black support

Black Democrats are watching with alarm and frustration as the party devolves into infighting in the wake of President Biden’s lackluster debate performance last month.

Black voters make up a critical part of the coalition that sent Biden to the White House in 2020, and their support is essential should he stay in the race for another term.

A recent highly watched New York Times/Siena College poll found a large percentage of Black voters feel Biden is too old for the job — but the same survey also found the president had in fact improved his support with the demographic after his faltering debate performance against former President Trump led to growing calls for him to withdraw.

Now, some Black Democrats are worried about how the debate fallout will impact an election whose stakes they feel couldn’t be higher.

“People who watched the debate actually increased their level of support for Joe Biden and decreased their level of support for Donald Trump,” Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, told The Hill. “It’s this post-debate narrative that is out of control … throwing fuel on the fire and actually creating a story that didn’t exist on debate night. Democrats need to get their people in order because it’s affecting what their actual base understands to be true.”

That’s not to say those who watched the debate were happy with the president’s performance, Shropshire said, but they weren’t necessarily surprised by what they saw.

“Both candidates showed up in the way that, frankly, voters have come to understand who they are,” Shropshire said. “Joe Biden seemed old. Trump seemed like a liar. None of that is news to people.”

But some Democrats are convinced Biden’s performance indicates a need for a new candidate.

Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and Lloyd Doggett (Texas) have both called for Biden to withdraw from the 2024 race. Behind closed doors, others have also called for him to step aside.

Though the president remains adamant he will not be dropping out of the race, Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, said what is generating even more trouble for the party is the debate around who would succeed Biden should he change his mind.

“Our expectation would be that the successor would be Kamala Harris,” Albright said. “Black folks have not at all taken well to this Hunger Games-type approach to who the successor would be. If the party messes around and reads a process that skips over the obvious successor of Vice President Harris, there’s going to be consequences and repercussions in terms of Black turnout.”

Both Biden and Trump are hoping to shore up support among Black voters. Trump has focused his efforts on Black men in particular and marked a goal of pulling around 20 percent of Black voter support on Election Day.

But despite some polls showing growing Black voter support for the former president, Shropshire pointed out that Trump had set similar goals in the last two elections, and it did not pan out.

“There’s no indication from the work that we’ve been doing or polling or our focus groups that that is the case right now,” she said.

“There’s something really offensive and sinister about suggesting that a group of people who have longed for fairness and equality and against racism and discrimination and white supremacy in this country would go flocking to a man and a party — a man [who] started his first campaign in 2016 on racism,” Shropshire added, referring to how Trump perpetuated the racist “Birther movement” regarding former President Obama.

For those who are talking about Trump’s debate performance, Albright said, it’s in the form of memes and social media.

“The main takeaway that Black folks had from that debate isn’t what Biden did or did not say. It’s what Trump said about Black jobs,” said Albright.

At the debate, Trump insinuated that “Black jobs” were being stolen by immigrants, prompting social media users to question what the former president considered a “Black job” to be.

“I wish I had $1 for every meme and video going around of Black folks talking about, ‘Here I am in my Black job,’” Albright said. “The Trump that we saw in that debate is the same Trump who has no policies for us, who doesn’t care about us, except to think all that we’re entitled to is some low-wage jobs.”

Though only 4 percent of Black voters said Biden did “very well” at the debate, 73 percent said they would vote for him if the election were held today, according to the New York Times/Siena poll.

And Black voters continue to overwhelmingly approve of Biden over Trump: 63 percent said they have a favorable view of Biden, compared to only 17 percent who said the same about Trump.

“Debates are not the end all, be all,” said Albright. “They only can be or will be if the response becomes all out of proportion, and that’s essentially what we’ve seen with this debate … the response has really been hyperbolic, and no debate is worthy of this level of hyper reaction.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by prominent Black leaders from former President Obama to Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). Though they acknowledged that Biden’s debate performance — filled with long pauses, half-formed thoughts and unclear answers — was far from his best, they say he remains the only choice come November.

“Bad debate nights happen. Trust me, I know,” Obama posted on X.

“But this election is still a choice between someone who has fought for ordinary folks his entire life and someone who only cares about himself. Between someone who tells the truth; who knows right from wrong and will give it to the American people straight — and someone who lies through his teeth for his own benefit. Last night didn’t change that, and it’s why so much is at stake in November.”

A certain amount of the support isn’t surprising, said Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright, but Biden’s performance does indicate how the party has struggled in general with communicating to Black voters.

“You saw a lot reaffirm their support because we as a community are the most loyal and dedicated voting bloc in the history of this country,” said Seawright. “But that doesn’t mean people don’t have concerns, or this idea that there are some legit issues that we have to deal with as a party do not exist. The issues Black Americans have did not go away after that debate.”

Still, some have argued that the administration has dropped the ball when it comes to speaking with the demographic, and that the debate highlighted that problem.

Moderators presented the candidates with only one question on Black voters — combining Black unemployment, the maternal mortality crisis and child care into one question — and Biden responded by highlighting what his administration has done for the community.

He said that Black unemployment has reached historically low levels under his administration and that he has helped reduce child care costs for Black families.

“There’s more to be done — considerably more to be done,” said Biden.

Shropshire said the president was put in a difficult position, as the question itself conflated a multitude of issues without a singular focus, but added that he could have been more “forceful” in his answer.

Albright added that though the question was a missed opportunity for Biden, what did stand out was just how much the president was able to hit on in his response.

“The fact that there is substance there to actually talk about, the fact that he got jumbled up because there’s a laundry list of things that he could have said to address it — that’s what’s more important to Black voters,” said Albright.

“No Black voter that I’ve talked to, or that we’ve talked to as an organization, thinks that his inability to speak clearly and eloquently in the debate is somehow an indication that the other person would be better.”

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