2016 Elections

Black Votes Matter

In the next few states, race will take center stage for the Democratic presidential campaigns.

At war for black and Hispanic votes.

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Debating Thursday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Hillary Clinton felt the fierce urgency of now. So did Bernie Sanders.  

With the Democratic primary campaign moving from Iowa and New Hampshire to Nevada and South Carolina later this month, and a bonanza of states in March, both candidates are fighting for support from black and Hispanic voters -- and will continue to do so as long as the contest lasts. Neither can win the Democratic nomination without these votes.

"The stakes in this election couldn't be higher," Clinton said campaigning Thursday. "African Americans can't wait for solutions. They need results now."

Clinton says "President Obama" as often as possible, and toward the debate's end accused Sanders of insufficient loyalty to him. The Sanders campaign implies over and over that Obama couldn't muster the revolution we need and that Clinton's failure would be even greater. She seizes that invitation to defend the record and ethics of the nation's first black president -- including his campaign contributions from the financial sector, thereby implicitly defending her own.

"I'm running for president to knock down all the barriers that are holding Americans back," Clinton said in the debate, citing a litany of black Americans limited by discrimination (black votes, check), immigrants living in fear (Hispanic votes, check) and women working for lower pay (women's votes, check).

Earlier in the day Clinton had received the endorsement of the black establishment in the form of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. For good measure, Representative John Lewis, the living symbol of the civil rights movement, took a hard whack at Sanders's personal biography -- just as Sanders is casting himself as a long-time fighter for racial justice, who even attended the 1963 March on Washington.

"I never saw him. I never met him," Lewis said. "But I met Hillary Clinton."

This is the way you win Democratic primaries. Or at least it has been. Obama defeated Clinton in 2008 on a number of fronts. But one of the most important was black voters. He beat her 55 percent to 27 percent in South Carolina, where more than half the primary electorate was black. Obama won black voters 78 to 19 in the state. Clinton never recovered from the blow.

Now Clinton is hoping to do to Sanders what Obama did to her -- run him off the field in every state with a large black population. She wants Sanders to be viewed as a dreamy Grandpa without a clue.

Sanders's best course may be to use his enormous advantage among white youth as a bridge to black youth -- ceding the Congressional Black Caucus to Clinton while winning their kids and grandkids. He's done pretty well so far without the "establishment."

At the debate, Sanders compared the onerous criminal penalties for black youth smoking pot to the nonexistent penalties paid by financial executives whose companies broke laws. He spoke of minority youth unemployment, a "broken criminal justice system" and the "over-policing" of black communities. And he sought to best Clinton on compassion for undocumented immigrants fleeing violence in Central America.

He's not ceding anything. When Sanders reaches out to voters who are "tired of establishment politics, tired of establishment economics," as he said at the debate, he can just as easily conjure a black face or a Hispanic surname as a white one. He even said race relations would improve under President Sanders.

Debate moderators Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff knew the score too. They asked several questions specifically about race -- the sort rarely if ever raised in the less colorful alter-world of Republican debates.

Metropolitan Milwaukee is reputed to be the most racially polarized metro area in the U.S. It could hardly be more polarized than the two national parties. As the political calendar turns to states with large black or Hispanic populations, the Democratic discussion will turn more acutely toward minority issues. The two candidates are comfortable using phrases like "institutional racism." It may not seem possible, but the vast distance between the two parties and what they talk about is about to grow even wider.

Clinton and Sanders Square Off on Race, Support For Obama

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.