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Biden's advantage with Michigan black voters challenges Sanders

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Former Vice President Joe Biden's popularity with African-American voters poses a challenge for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to win over a key constituency who could help determine victory in Tuesday's Michigan Democratic presidential primary.

Black voters sent shock waves through the Super Tuesday primaries and fueled Biden to victories in 10 of the 14 primary states, especially throughout the South. They also helped force billionaire and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg out of the race Wednesday.

Sanders narrowly won the 2016 Michigan Democratic primary even though black voters mostly supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate,   visits with supporters on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019, in Detroit.

In this campaign, African-American voters have been courted by Biden and Sanders as well as on a smaller scale by Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren before she suspended her campaign Thursday. Bloomberg also sought black votes but could not overcome his record, which included an aggressive "stop and frisk" policy in New York.

But the black vote, particularly among older voters who more reliably cast ballots, presents a major challenge for Sanders, experts say.

"Michigan may well be the knockout blow for Joe Biden against Bernie Sanders. Things are collapsing for Sanders everywhere on every front," said Bill Ballenger, a longtime political analyst and head of the online Ballenger Report.

If one-third of Tuesday's votes are supplied by African Americans, "then Biden has got the advantage in the black community," Ballenger said.

Biden led Sanders 41% to 16% among Michigan African-American voters in a Feb. 28-March 2 Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll. The exits of Bloomberg and Warren will put more black voters up for grabs. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii campaigned in Detroit on Tuesday, but she only got the support of 0.7% of all 600 likely primary voters surveyed.

Michigan is home to the 12th largest population of African-American residents, according to the 2010 Census, and a city in Detroit that is majority black and Democratic.

Biden has emphasized his association with President Barack Obama, the nation's first black commander in chief, and his longtime relationship with the community as a U.S. senator from Delaware. During the Great Recession and the city's financial problems, he was the Obama administration's prime ambassador to Detroit, which is home to Michigan's largest black population. 

Sanders, the self-declared democratic socialist, has tried to make inroads in the African-American community and has succeeded with younger blacks. He has been endorsed by rapper Killer Mike, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte as well as Princeton University professor and author Cornel West.

The Sanders campaign has been working to improve its performance in Wayne County, where Clinton defeated Sanders by nearly 22 percentage points four years ago. The senator received the backing Friday of Detroit Action, a group that advocates for workers and people of color in the city, and Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield. 

Endorsement battle

Biden reminds black voters of Obama's policies, which helped turn the country's economy around, said Keith Williams, 64, a former Wayne County commissioner who chairs the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus that endorsed the former vice president after the Iowa caucuses. 

Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally where he was endorsed by progressive Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib at Cass Tech High School in Detroit on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019.

"The word is familiarity. Black folks know him by standing with Barack Obama," Williams said of Biden. "Black folks, they trust Joe. Like (South Carolina U.S. Rep. Jim) Clyburn said, 'We know Joe, and Joe knows us.' It gets back to the comfort with that person. They understand his sincerity. Black folks are comfortable with Joe."

The African-American community has a "trust and a relationship" with Biden that doesn't exist with Sanders and sees him as the one to beat Trump, said Richard Czuba, lead pollster of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group that did The News-WDIV poll. 

"It's a long relationship, and it's a deep relationship," Czuba said. "And when you look at Michigan and the city of Detroit, how many times has Joe Biden been to Detroit over the years? They know him. They're not just going to throw their support to anybody."

Sanders has tried to counter by getting the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, who represents one of the two congressional districts including Detroit. The endorsement came as he held an October rally at the city's Cass Tech High School. 

A Palestinian-American, Tlaib is a fellow democratic socialist who has advocated for poor blacks in her district.

But the ideology might be too strident for most black voters, Czuba said.

"African-American voters in Michigan are very pragmatic voters. They're not liberal firebrands," he said. "They may support certain liberal policies. Their primary concern is who can beat Donald Trump."

Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District of the Democratic Party, said he saw the shift to Biden firsthand Friday at the Department of Elections. He said he witnessed several people in line who told him they were there to change their absentee ballots for Biden after they previously voted for a candidate no longer in the race.

"It boggles the mind why everyone's so surprised that the vice president who stood with President Obama, who through the years had been an ear to the African-American community and our causes and issues" is popular with black voters, Kinloch said.

Sanders, he said, "did not stand with black voters and he wasn't a familiar name in the black community."

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, on Thursday endorsed Biden after originally backing U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who was one of three African-American candidates in the field. Harris suspended her campaign in December. She was followed Friday by Garlin Gilchrist II, Michigan's first African-American lieutenant governor.

Harris hurt Biden in a June debate by criticizing the former Delaware senator's opposition to a federal busing mandate. She noted she was part of the second class of Berkeley, California, students to be voluntarily bused to a majority-white elementary school. Biden countered that he didn't "oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education."

What voters say

Biden is not getting "African-American voters as a whole," said Michael Page, 47, of Southfield, who is a Sanders supporter.

But he admitted the Vermont senator is struggling with older black voters. Still, Page argued that Sanders will muster more black votes than anticipated.

"Most of the young black people I know are voting for Bernie or Elizabeth," said Page, a longtime chef. "It's about change. I believe that no Democrat has ever taken the White House unless it was a change candidate, from John F. Kennedy on down. And I believe in Bernie, and I believe in everything he says. It's time for a political revolution."

Page said blacks who flooded the polls for Biden in the South are not "speaking for the whole experience. Our experience up North is much different than theirs. And they are resistant to change because nothing's changed down there."

Brandon Jessup, center, answers questions during a Detroit News forum on public policy in 2013.

Political activist and organizer Brandon Jessup, 38, has been backing Warren and attended her Tuesday night Detroit rally.

Warren appealed to him with ideas to address redlining in black communities and a track record he took seriously, said Jessup, who worked on Obama's 2012 re-election campaign. She didn't personify "the old trust-me politics that you get from traditional Democrats. And that's what I got from Vice President Biden.

"To be respectful of Democrats who are approaching 80 years old, it is time to give the mantle and the call to structural change in America" to someone else, he said.

But Kinloch said he expects Biden to get a lion's share of the black vote in such urban cities as Detroit.

"When you stick with us, we will stick with you," he said of Biden.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming