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Understanding The Black Vote In The Democratic Primary


This week has seen the stunning turnaround of former Vice President Joe Biden's candidacy, and he's gone from being counted out by many pollsters and pundits to being the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president. That turnaround likely wouldn't have happened had it not been for the support of African American voters in South Carolina. And that turnout and the endorsement of the highest-ranking African American in Congress, James Clyburn, gave Biden a resounding victory and brought his campaign back to life.

But there is no one black vote, and we're going to talk about that with Chryl Laird. She's the author of "Steadfast Democrats."

Welcome to the program.

CHRYL LAIRD: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Black voters aren't looked at the way the media splinters the white vote - right? - NASCAR dads, soccer moms (laughter), you know, Iowa versus New Hampshire. But what do you know about South Carolina, those older voters versus the younger voters in terms of how they looked at this vote?

LAIRD: Older voters are going to be individuals who have had many cycles and experiences in terms of their understanding of how the political world responds to concerns of African Americans, right? They're coming out of the Southern region of the United States that's had kind of a long history of being fraught with race relations and politics. And younger voters are coming of age where they were seeing the first black president having got elected, more progressiveness that they are believing that can happen within the politics, and I think they're more likely to take risk.

CORNISH: So when Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders argues that Biden represents, you know, the Democratic establishment and says that, in a way, as a slur, what message does it send to that older black voter who, you know, turned out in three times the number in a place like South Carolina?

LAIRD: I think he would want to be careful because it's dismissive a bit. I think it is not taking into account the pragmatic and strategic rationale that is going on there - one, that Biden actually may be appealing to these voters because, ideologically, they may align with a lot of what Biden is saying; but additionally, that they are thinking about long-term consequences for this, right?

So if the idea is that they want to get Trump out of office, Biden seems like an individual who's not only going to have appeal to them in terms of where they are politically, but he also would have appeal more broadly, potentially, in the Democratic electorate. And so that is something that they're going to be taking into consideration.

CORNISH: As a professor, what do you make of the intergenerational debate, especially that younger black voter who may be frustrated (laughter) with the older electorate or who feel as though they are, in a way, being ignored in supporting another candidate?

LAIRD: I heard this from my students. Literally, I had a discussion about this in my class yesterday (laughter). And my black students, many of them were very bothered by the older demographic, and I think what they need to recognize is the experiences and the socialization that those individuals have gone through. They have not necessarily seen some very large swing to the left happen in the way that younger voters imagining it would.

And they themselves have lived through these experiences that have told them that what seems to be most likely to occur - right? - would be something that is going to be more within moderation and one that can still get the job done, which in this case, again, is beating Trump.

CORNISH: Did they come to an agreement, or were you another finger-wagging older auntie voter?

LAIRD: (Laughter) I think they were able at least to process it a bit better because I think they were just stunned, right? They're thinking in their brains where, I can't understand why my grandfather and his friends are voting this way when it clearly seems like the more progressive candidate that has policies that would speak to some of these concerns that African Americans have - for instance, around health care being one of the big concerns - why wouldn't you go with the candidate that's the most left-leaning on this?

And I said to them, yeah, but they also have a familiarity as well with Biden. They know who he is. So even if they had doubts, a lot of that reinforces what may already be underlying in there, which is we just don't make those kinds of large leaps in our politics.

CORNISH: That's Chryl Laird, author of "Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior."

Thanks so much.

LAIRD: Thank you for having me.