NEW ORLEANS — Elizabeth Warren’s trademark pitch of her personal story blended with wonky policy proposals has helped her win over white liberals. Now, she’s hoping her message will resonate with blacks, a crucial Democratic constituency that will play a large role in deciding who will challenge President Donald Trump next year.
More important, Warren is trying to avoid the missteps of her chief progressive rival Bernie Sanders in 2016, when his campaign was ultimately doomed by his inability to win over black voters.
“When you lay out these plans and you can connect those plans to people’s everyday experiences, they tend to react to them,” said South Carolina Rep.Jim Clyburn. “Bernie had a tremendous emotional following in some parts of the black community, but people listen to his words and they were never able to connect those 30,000-foot policies with everyday practical plans.”
More than six months before the first votes are cast, former Vice President Joe Biden leads the Democratic field, but his poll numbers have declined in recent weeks with Warren and Sen. Kamala Harris gaining ground.
Most troubling for Warren, however, is the double-digit gap in polls among black voters between her and Biden and Harris, who got a bounce in the surveys after clashing with the former vice president over busing during the first debate of Democratic candidates last month.
But Warren’s deliberate outreach to black leaders and activists and a series of policy proposals targeted at the black community are helping her make inroads. Black voters, who account for about 20% of the Democratic electorate, have selected the past five of the party’s nominees since 1992.
In 2016, Sanders only captured 26% of the vote in the South Carolina primary and went on to lose black voters to Hillary Clinton by more than 50 percentage points over the course of the nominating process. Polls still show Warren as low as 4% among black voters, and some say a second-place finish behind Biden or Harris in a state with a powerful black electorate like South Carolina would be a victory for her.
Her journey from struggling mom to the presidential campaign trail is compelling to blacks, Clyburn said. By contrast, Sanders has been far more reluctant to discuss his life story — he barely mentioned it in 2016 and has only recently begun bringing it up at rallies.
“Elizabeth Warren has a background that a lot of African Americans relate to,” Clyburn said. “Her experiences, her disappointments, her dropping out of school and then dropping back into school and to go through that kind of a background and to be such an achiever, it resonates with a lot of African American people.”
At the Essence Festival, a gathering of mostly black women in New Orleans last weekend, some voters also said they have been impressed by the detailed ways Warren has addressed issues impacting black communities.
“I think she’s done her homework,” said Kishanna Harley, a 39-year-old school librarian from Washington, after hearing Warren speak. “I appreciate the fact that she brought up red-lining, that she understands the nuances of how wealth was created and still created and passed generationally means a lot.”
Before her appearance at Essence Festival, for example, Warren unveiled her latest policy proposal aimed at bolstering wages for women of color. If elected, she said, she would impose stricter rules for companies seeking federal contracts and would aim to diversify the senior ranks of the federal government. Her other ideas aimed at black voters include funding black entrepreneurs, directing more money to historically black colleges and universities and assisting black families in buying homes.
Earlier this month, Warren also found a receptive audience for her message in Chicago when she spoke at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition Convention. Standing at the altar of the Apostolic Faith Church, Warren eschewed her usual stump speech and spoke about her time as a Sunday School teacher before reading from Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew.
“This is not a call for another round of vague ideas,” she said. “This is a call for real plans to make real changes in our lives and in our communities.”
The crowd responded with cheers and a standing ovation, the only one they gave to a presidential candidate that day. Two of her rivals for the nomination, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii spoke before Warren.
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Warren’s supporters remain optimistic that she can compete with Biden and Harris to win the black vote, and they say her success in connecting with voters in New Orleans and Chicago is proof.
“African American voters who actually see her, love her,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which is backing Warren. “Now, the challenge is to make sure that millions more voters see her in action. That’s where the debates come in but it’s also where her deciding not to do big fundraisers and go to states like Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee come in.”
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