COLUMBIA, S.C. ― Monty Bell entered the halls of the South Carolina Democratic Party convention in June firmly entrenched in former Vice President Joe Biden’s camp.
“I’ve always liked him,” said Bell.
But by the time Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrapped up her six-minute speech at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, the 38-year-old state delegate wasn’t quite as sure.
“Warren was very impressive,” Bell said afterward. “She definitely gave me something to think about.”
After stumbling in the early months of her presidential campaign, the Massachusetts senator has shoved herself back into the race with policy specifics, promises to forgo big-money fundraising tactics, and energetic and selfie-filled town halls. During the second quarter of the year, Warren steadily rose in national and early-state polls and raised $19.1 million, more than three times as much as she had in the prior three months.
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But for the Warren campaign to stand a chance of winning the Democratic nomination next year, she’ll likely have to fully convert black voters like Bell, an increasingly critical, powerful and decisive voting bloc in the Democratic primary process.
Black voters now comprise more than 20% of Democratic primary voters and often put the vast majority of their political weight behind one presidential candidate ― two factors that together give them recognizable power in the party. “If you can’t compete strongly for African American votes, you’re not going to be the nominee,” said Cornell Belcher, a former pollster for the Democratic National Committee and Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns.
It’s still early. But so far, Warren’s message hasn’t resonated widely with the black electorate. In the early primary state of South Carolina, which has historically served as a harbinger of the larger black vote, Warren is currently polling at just 2% among black Democrats, according to a recent poll out of Monmouth University. Other national polls have also shown Warren polling in the single digits with black Americans ― often well behind Biden and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“She’s got a tough road, and there is no shortcut to the front of the pack,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies black voting behavior.
For a number of reasons, Warren entered the presidential contest at a disadvantage compared to her three fellow front-runners, according to Johnson: Biden and Sanders each came into the race with an “established reputation in black America” and more of an “inherent trust” among black voters. Harris has “the shared lived experience that allows her to make cultural appeals in a way that others can’t,” as well as the ability to offer “descriptive representation,” meaning that she herself is a woman of color.
“Warren has neither of those things,” Johnson said.
But by making racial inequity a central part of her campaign, Warren has made inroads with political activists and strategists of color. She released plans to address the racial wage gap, wealth gap, maternal mortality gap and “startup capital gap.” She proposed banning private prisons, paying reparations, legalizing marijuana, canceling most people’s student debt and making historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) tuition-free. And she didn’t shy away from her own personal story ― that of a college dropout and onetime single mother whose life was turned around by a selfless aunt and a commuter college that only cost $50 a month.
At presidential forums hosted by the Black Economic Alliance in Charleston, South Carolina, and She the People in Houston, Warren received standing ovations, impressing attendees with her penchant for specifics and ability to connect on a personal level.
“A lot of people in that room were surprised like, ‘Wow, OK,’” said Aimee Allison, the founder and president of She the People, a political group that seeks to elevate women of color. “For her to make her case so powerfully ― and to win over women of color in that room ― demonstrated that she’s got staying power.”
In June, almost half of political activists and strategists of color listed Warren as their top candidate when polled by She the People. It was one poll, but it served as evidence of a swift and remarkable shift. The previous December, only one-fifth of the same group even listed Warren in their top three.
The critical question for Warren and her campaign now becomes whether that newfound enthusiasm among the political class will translate to the black electorate.
“Black activists is one thing,” said Yvette Simpson, chief executive of Democracy for America, a progressive political action committee. “But we always joke, does Rae-Rae know who you are? Does the everyday person know who you are?”
Black activists is one thing. But we always joke, does Rae-Rae know who you are? Does the everyday person know who you are?Yvette Simpson, chief executive of Democracy for America
Warren established her genuine concern for inequities specific to black Americans long ago. As a Harvard professor studying debt and bankruptcy, she repeatedly argued that discrimination put black middle-class families at a higher structural risk of financial collapse than white middle-class families. In a 2003 book, she and her daughter referred to subprime lending and paydays loans as “legally sanctioned corporate plans to steal from minorities.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates has said Warren is the only presidential candidate who reached out to discuss the idea of reparations with him. A few years back, Warren also reached out to meet with Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy organization. He immediately noticed that she did not bring along any staff, unlike many of her peers.
“To me, that showed a real command of the information and a real comfort with each of the areas that we covered,” he said. “From bail reform and criminal justice to, of course, the economy.”
By 2015, Warren’s support for black Americans had become increasingly clear for those who wished to see it. That year, she took a strong stand in support of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, which The Washington Post called “perhaps the most full-throated endorsement to date by a federal lawmaker.” Activist DeRay Mckesson said Warren understood the cause “better than any political leader I’ve yet heard.”
Even still, some of the strategists and activists who are supportive of Warren acknowledged the difficulties she’ll face in winning over black voters. Jamecia Decre, a Democratic strategist, personally appreciates Warren’s ability to court “black voters without pandering to them,” but said there are a number of “assumptions” that the former Harvard professor will have to overcome in the black community.
“I don’t know any other way to put it outside of the fact that she’s a white woman,” she said. “There’s just a lack of trust between white women and black folks in general.”
Building up that trust is possible ― after all, Hillary Clinton earned 77% of the black vote in 2016 ― but it also takes time, activists and strategists of color said. At the Black Economic Forum in Charleston in June, Robert, who declined to give his last name, said he hadn’t heard of Warren until the 2016 election.
“If I don’t hear about you until these times like this, what are you doing for me?” he asked.
“I’m not with Elizabeth,” Michael Yates, a 36-year-old former Marine and member of the Ashley Cooper Young Democrats, said at the South Carolina convention. “I see her on TV. I hear her. But you know how somebody just ― I don’t think you understand where I come from.”
Warren may have inadvertently made things harder for herself among certain groups of black voters by positioning herself as an aspirational candidate. Warren ends many of her stump speeches by declaring “Let’s dream big, fight hard — and win!” But older black voters, in particular, are generally more drawn to established candidates they perceive as most likely to preserve past civil rights gains, Johnson and others said.
“You can’t risk it on a radical or a dream candidate,” Johnson said, explaining the thought process around picking a candidate. “You have to use it very practically so that you can marshal the power of the black electorate to at least maintain gains that have been realized to date ― or make some incremental progress.”
“It’s always been true in the black community that we tend to not necessarily always vote with our hearts,” agreed Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a longtime state legislator in South Carolina.
John Cusack, a retired 70-year-old from Florence County, South Carolina, said he admires Warren’s courage and willingness to “tell it like it is.” But after Clinton’s loss in 2016, he has reservations about selecting a woman or a person of color as the nominee in 2020.
“She may be a little more brash than some people would like to accept,” Cusack said. “America still hasn’t come to grips with black leadership, female leadership.”
Instead, Cusack is reluctantly considering voting for Biden. “He’s a recognized name for the Democratic Party,” Cusack said.
America still hasn’t come to grips with black leadership, female leadership.John Cusack, 70, from Florence County, South Carolina
Warren has hired more than two dozen staffers in South Carolina and made six visits to the state so far. Carol Fowler, the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, said that people have been impressed with Warren when she has visited, but added that other candidates, like Harris and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), have developed a stronger presence in the state so far.
“She’s not neglecting us, but I do think South Carolina Democrats feel like they’ve gotten to know some of the other candidates a little better,” Fowler said.
Strategists, politicians and voters in South Carolina and elsewhere told HuffPost that Warren needed to go further, especially in rural South Carolina communities. Multiple people pointed to Obama’s 2008 campaign in South Carolina as a blueprint. Back then, Clinton held a commanding lead in early South Carolina polls, including among black voters.
“We knew Hillary Clinton,” said Kambrell Garvin, 27. “I can recall being a high school student. And folks told me I was crazy when I said that Barack Obama could win.”
But Obama committed to touring the state anyway, especially after his victory at the Iowa caucuses. “Obama went to every little small city in South Carolina,” said Sandino Moses, a 44-year-old teacher’s assistant in Charleston. “He visited all the HBCU colleges. He went to every town hall meeting he could go to. He went places I’ve never been before. And I live in South Carolina.”
In the end, Obama took 44 of 46 counties in the state’s Democratic primary and garnered 55% of the vote.
“These folks need to know that you care. They need to hear your heart,” said Simpson of Democracy for America. “They don’t want the data. They want you to hear their story.”
Nationally, Warren has been “conducting a master class” in reaching out to the broader black electorate in spite of the disadvantages she faces, said Johnson, mirroring the opinions of others. Warren has surrounded herself with some of the “best operatives of color” in politics, according to Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who has endorsed Harris. Since 2018, she has visited states including Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi ― as well as five HBCUs ― and held listening sessions with community leaders, as in Philadelphia ahead of the Netroots Nation convention in July.
At the second set of Democratic presidential debates in Detroit, when asked about the rise of white nationalism, Warren turned the conversation toward President Donald Trump, accusing him of “advancing environmental racism, economic racism, criminal justice racism, [and] health care racism.” It was critical, she explained, that Democrats tackle the specific issues of black Americans head-on.
“So my plan has universal tuition-free college for all of our kids, but also increases the Pell Grants and levels the playing field by putting $50 billion into historically black colleges and universities,” she said. “It cancels student loan debt for 95% of the kids with student loan debt and helps close the black-white wealth gap in America.”
Warren has also made a clear effort to personalize her message, said Johnson, the voting expert: “There’s always something personal to show that these positions she holds are not the end product of an academic exercise, but of a lived experience in an America that didn’t do for her as a woman what it’s supposed to do for all of us as Americans.”
These folks need to know that you care. They need to hear your heart. They don’t want the data. They want you to hear their story.Yvette Simpson
In one instance, at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network convention in New York this April, Warren connected her call for universal child care to her own struggles as a young mother and the support her aunt provided in a moment of personal crisis.
“One night, after I’d put both kids to bed, my 78-year-old Aunt Bee called long-distance from Oklahoma to see how I was doing. I said, ‘Fine.’ Then, with no warning, I started to cry,” she said. “Then Aunt Bee said 11 words that changed my life forever. ‘I can’t get there tomorrow, but I can come on Thursday.’”
“Now, if every working mom in the country had an Aunt Bee, we’d all be good,” Warren added. “But think about all the moms in America who don’t have an Aunt Bee.”
That personal touch has worked occasionally. Joy Vandervort-Cobb, a teacher at the College of Charleston, found herself surprised by Warren at the Black Economic Alliance forum.
“I would never have attached to Sen. Warren the way ― oh my God, when she turned toward us, she was like, damn the camera, this is what I’m here for, this is what I’m about. I’ve got a plan for that. That, I thought, was beautifully done. She just went in, she went right at us,” she said.
Cobb-Hunter, the South Carolina legislator, said that she’s noticed a growing level of interest in Warren among black women in her state. It’s too soon to say exactly why. But Warren has made the idea that the “ultra-rich have rigged our economy” a central part of her campaign, and black voters ― and young black women in particular ― are highly likely to agree with that idea,according to recent research by The Groundwork Collaborative, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and UnidosUS Action Fund.
Among the women who have been taken by Warren is South Carolina state representative Wendy Brawley, who recently endorsed the senator. Brawley said that she appreciated the extent to which Warren talks about “family economics” and child care.
“All of the plans that she has talked about it in her campaign are ones that are relevant to everyday people, that would actually help everyday people who struggle every day trying to make ends meet,” said Brawley.
For now, Biden retains a dominant lead with the black community, especially in South Carolina, where 51% of black voters listed him as their top pick in the latest Monmouth poll. But Temple Robinson, a 40-year-old stay-at-home mom and undecided voter, said there is something of a generational divide between older and younger black voters in South Carolina when it comes to Biden.
“The older people love him,” she said. “I don’t necessarily know how well he has connected to people who are 40 and under.”
This primary season, Cobb-Hunter believes the black electorate will “fracture” more than in the past, both because of the large number of Democratic candidates and because of an influx of new issues-based voters. Should that happen, there are signs Warren could make inroads within the black community. In a May poll conducted by BlackPAC, Warren performed significantly better with black voters who are paying close attention to the news ― and almost as well as Biden.
“Everybody, I think, firmly believes that Biden is in the lead. But when they talk about what’s next, I’m hearing a lot of Elizabeth Warren,” agreed Todd Rutherford, South Carolina’s House minority leader.
Kenneth Glover, the Democratic Party chair of Orangeburg County in South Carolina, said that Warren’s focus on student loan forgiveness and free college has also been “resonating” with a lot of young people in his community. Numerous young black voters said the same.
One young South Carolinian who has been taken by Warren is Garvin, who is now a 27-year-old member of the South Carolina House of Representatives. In July, he decided to endorse Warren alongside Brawley, much to his own surprise.
“When the process started a couple of months ago, Elizabeth Warren was not even on my list of candidates that I was intending to support,” he said.
But Garvin appreciated her detailed policies, her warmth and her “down-to-earth” nature. He now believes the 2020 primary will mirror the events of 2008, when he was that high school kid crazy enough to believe a black senator from Illinois stood a chance.
“There is a divide between some of my older colleagues and myself in regards to who we want to see elected and become president,” Garvin said. “But I don’t think that is a divide that Elizabeth Warren can’t overcome.”
Julia Craven and Igor Bobic contributed reporting.