Updated at 9:24 a.m. ET
When Elizabeth Warren announced her exploratory committee for president at the end of last month, the Massachusetts senator didn’t only talk about a crumbling middle class – her signature policy issue – but she acknowledged the impact of race and racism on the economy, saying that “families of color” face a rockier path “made even harder by the impact of generations of discrimination.”
A few weeks later, Julian Castro, the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, explicitly spoke about reforming the justice system when he announced his candidacy for president, saying that “for far too many people of color, any interaction with the police can become fatal.”
Just last week on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced her intentions to run for president by mentioning the need to take on “institutional racism.”
And California Sen. Kamala Harris chose the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to announce her campaign, highlighting issues of racial inequality and her parents’ experience in the civil rights movement. “The thing about Dr. King that always inspires me is that he was aspirational,” Harris told ABC’s Good Morning America on Monday, nodding to a theme of her campaign.
All of these Democrats are making explicit appeals to African-American voters in the early stages of announcing their plans to seek the presidential nomination. And at least half a dozen Democrats interested in the 2020 presidential race are speaking at events on Monday to commemorate King.
It’s a sign of how important black voters are in the Democratic primary and a recognition of the growing reality that to win a general election, they’ll need strong black voter turnout. In 2016, black turnout fell in key cities, such as Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia, in states Hillary Clinton lost.
“You see the candidates centering these issues of racial justice. That just didn’t happen in 2016 in the same way,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a superPAC founded in 2016 to engage black voters.
Shropshire says the rhetoric from Democratic candidates has shifted for two main reasons: as a reaction to the explicit racial divisions of the Trump era and shifting public perception around police brutality.
“In 2016, the Black Lives Matter movement was still new. I think candidates were unsure of how to respond to it,’ said Quentin James, the co-founder of Collective PAC, an organization whose mission is to build black political power. “It was almost a hostile relationship with them and many activists.”
In 2016, the country as a whole was grappling with how to talk about race and police brutality, said James, but in the years since, with more news stories of unarmed black men being killed, he thinks candidates have developed more nuanced responses.
“What I’m seeing in 2020 is that people are actually on the right side of those issues this cycle because they’ve had two to four years to think about how to address them,” said James.
Diverse field of candidates
The 2020 primary will also likely be the most diverse field the Democratic party has ever seen with at least two African-American candidates – New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and California Sen. Kamala Harris.
There is no doubt both Booker and Harris have a level of credibility in the African-American community. Booker has pushed to end mass incarceration and Harris has spoken up about the rate of black maternal mortality. In a limited survey of black women this past December, Harris did particularly well.
The Rev. Al Sharpton says he expected Booker and Harris would resonate with black audiences, but he was surprised by how well a couple of other Democrats have been received: Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
“They just connected better than I thought they would,” said Sharpton. “I thought Warren had almost taken preacher lessons.”
Some analysts say white candidates who can convincingly connect with black audiences get an extra benefit, particularly given the racial tensions in the country.
“If you have a white candidate that frankly can give voice authentically to these issues … it is counterintuitive in a way that I think helps the white candidate, said Cornell Belcher, a former pollster for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and is now president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies.
He points to Mitch Landrieu, who’s white but connected with black voters by taking down Confederate statues around New Orleans when he was mayor of that city.
“For better or worse, I think a Landrieu, for example, taking on the Confederacy, in the long run, he gets more value out of that than say Cory Booker taking on the confederacy,” said Belcher.
But activists and analysts say black voters want more than just rhetoric.
“This can’t be a road to Damascus kind of conversion,” said Sharpton, who has met with nearly every serious 2020 Democratic presidential contender.
Voters care are about how diverse a candidate’s staff is, what the candidate’s track records is, and, most important, policies that recognize the concerns of diverse black voters.
“This critique that’s about economics and class that ignores the variable of race comes across as insulting to people of color,” said Belcher, explaining that’s why Bernie Sanders struggled in the 2016 primary.
Both Belcher and Sharpton say none of the candidates have yet offered many concrete details to black voters. But Sharpton says, so far, at least, they’re talking more about racial justice than before.
“Whether that is a political calculation or whether that’s a sincere appreciation is what we’ve got to be able to see,” said Sharpton.
He says the candidates this time around realize they cannot win the nomination without significant support from black voters, so there is an understanding of the political reality in their outreach.
“You’re not gonna be the nominee of the Democratic party if you are the candidate who’s coming in 5th place in South Carolina,” said Belcher, referring to one of the early primary states where black voters are an outsized portion of the electorate.
In more than half a dozen states voting on Super Tuesday, which in 2020 will fall on March 3, just a month after the primaries begin, black voters make up at least 10 percent of the Democratic electorate. In some states like Alabama, more than 50 percent of Democratic voters are black.
In a political climate where candidates need black voters in the primary season, some activists and analysts say there’s a concern that this outreach is genuine, and not just politically strategic for the primaries.
“The question that I’m waiting to see is will candidates continue to talk about these issues when they go to Trump country,” said James.