Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders is flanked by the...

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders is flanked by the Rev. Al Sharpton, left, and the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson at the National Action Network's annual convention in Manhattan on April 5. Credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer

In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary in South Carolina by an overwhelming 47 points to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This presidential election cycle, Sanders has visited the state early and often, underscoring that its majority-black Democratic electorate is crucial to his path to the nomination.

The Vermont independent isn’t alone in acknowledging the political significance of African-Americans, 90 percent of whom voted for the Democratic candidate in the 2018 midterm elections.

The field of 2020 Democratic presidential contenders — which includes Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who are black — is the most diverse ever.

But no one yet has a lock on the African-American vote, experts say.

“Black voters will give serious consideration to nonblack candidates who, one, have a serious chance of winning and, two, make a serious effort to reach out to them,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University associate professor who researches African-American politics.

Fourteen of the Democratic White House hopefuls descended on Manhattan earlier this month to speak to the politically powerful National Action Network.

“Many of the things that you and I have struggled around — voting rights, police reform, civil liberties — are at stake,” the organization’s founder, the Rev. Al Sharpton, told his members. “So, we take very seriously who is going to be contending in the next election.”

Stump speeches at the gathering focused on economic policies to reverse institutionalized racism. The candidates also condemned Republican President Donald Trump's leadership as detrimental to African-Americans.

Black voters account for about 20 percent of the nation’s Democratic electorate, experts say.

Black women, in particular, constitute a formidable voting bloc that was crucial to Democrat Doug Jones’ election to the U.S. Senate in Alabama in 2017 and Democrat Stacey Abrams’ competitive but unsuccessful bid for Georgia governor last year, said Christina Greer, Fordham University associate professor and author of “Black Ethnics.”

“Not only do black women mobilize people to the polls … they’re the ones raising the issues, raising the alarm, especially in the Trump era,” Greer said, citing issues such as reproductive rights, high U.S. incarceration rates, jobs and health care.

Clinching support among black voters is key to winning not only the South Carolina primary next Feb. 29 — the fourth nominating contest on the calendar — but also to picking up delegates across the South, Gillespie said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts held a CNN town hall last month in Jackson, Mississippi, where she urged a “national, full-blown conversation about reparations.”

Reparations to atone to African-Americans for generations of slavery were a theme at the National Action Network convention April 3-5. All the presidential candidates who spoke expressed support for a House bill to form a commission to study reparations. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York called the discussion “long overdue.”

Convention attendees ranked education, housing and police accountability as among their priorities.

Some noted that discussions about race have become refreshingly frank since 2016.

Cynthia East, 54, of the Bronx, welcomed what she called the humility of former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

“He says what we’ve been thinking. He says he has ‘white privilege,’” East said.

Several attendees said they would support former Vice President Joe Biden if he entered the race.

Biden was not at the convention. But his long record includes his leadership as a senator on the 1994 Crime Bill that contributed to high incarceration rates and his handling as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman of the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Anita Hill, who had worked with Thomas at two government agencies, accused Thomas of sexual misconduct, testifying before Biden and the all-white, all-male judiciary committee. Biden has faced criticism for not shielding her from attacks.

But Greer said older black voters are more likely to associate Biden with President Barack Obama, who remains widely popular among African-Americans.

“For a white man of his age and his generation to be that loyal to this young black man and do his job — not trying to contradict Obama or usurp Obama — a lot of older black voters respect that,” Greer said.

Biden, Sanders and O’Rourke have been leading in national polls on the 2020 race, with Harris sometimes breaking into the top three.

Trump, for his part, also has tried to appeal to nonwhite voters, memorably asking in the 2016 campaign, “What do you have to lose?” In numbers consistent with the last presidential election, 10 percent of black voters said they would definitely back or would consider backing Trump in the 2020 general election, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released late last month.

On the heels of Sharpton's convention, several Democratic candidates are set to speak on April 24 at the She the People presidential forum in Houston, which will focus on issues facing women of color.

“Their presence is an acknowledgment at long last that women of color are a key voting bloc to make their case to,” said She the People founder Aimee Allison. “There is no path to the Democratic nomination and no path to the White House without the enthusiastic support of women of color.”


59.6%: voter turnout among blacks in 2016

11.9%: black share of voters overall in 2016

12.5%: projected black share of voters overall in 2020

90%: proportion of blacks who voted for the Democratic candidate in 2018

88%: proportion of black men who voted for the Democratic candidate in 2018

92%: proportion of black women voted for the Democratic candidate in 2018

Source: Pew Research Center

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