Undecided About Your Super Tuesday Vote? So Am I.
Melissa Harris-Perry talks with top-ranking Black women in the 2020 presidential campaigns before casting her Super Tuesday vote
The firewall held for former Vice President Joe Biden in South Carolina. This past Saturday night, he claimed his first victory of the 2020 primary season, earning the support of more than 60% of African American voters in the Palmetto State. The remaining Democrats in the presidential nomination race now face a critical test as voters in 14 states voice their preferences in the Super Tuesday delegate bonanza. I am one of those voters. Yet even with Super Tuesday looming, I remain super undecided.
I am also in North Carolina, where early voting began weeks ago, and I’m ready to pull the lever in the city council, state legislative, congressional, and senate primaries. But when it comes to the presidential primary, I am the Black girl shrug emoji. And I am not alone.
Since late 2019, polls have tracked significant proportions of undecided Democrats. Within that group, Black folk from grassroots to leadership are still eyeing the available options with wary skepticism. As a professor of political science who’s been teaching, writing, and publicly commenting on U.S. elections for more than two decades, I find this political indecision to be unfamiliar and uncomfortable terrain.
I guess I could take one of those online quizzes to match with a preferred candidate based solely on policy positions. But I am still distraught from completing a Hogwarts virtual Sorting Hat test and learning I am in the house of Hufflepuff. Really? Huffle-freaking-puff? I worry that devoid of all other context, my “match” candidate might be someone I don’t genuinely feel I can support. What if a quiz reveals I’m a Steyer voter? Nope. I don’t want to know that about myself.
For months, I’ve kept my own Google spreadsheet listing the candidates’ various policy positions. It’s a reference tool for research and teaching. I have restrained myself from using it to create a personal algorithm of candidate choice. Policy positions matter, but it’s folly to rely exclusively on this marker. Yes, I am checking the candidates for clear language about repaired voting rights, meaningful criminal justice reform, accessible reproductive health care, effective environmental protection, and expanded educational access. At the same time, I’m assessing them for optimistic sobriety. Do they understand how hard it will be? Are they prepared to navigate the power constraints, hostile opponents, and global challenges both predicted and unforeseen? Which candidates make me feel secure with their maturity, judgment, and strategic thinking?
I resist the anyone-but-Trump crowd’s urging to just flip a coin because anyone seeking the Democratic nomination is better than our incumbent president. I don’t subscribe to that channel.
I’m uninterested in sending my little vote out to tilt at ideological windmills, but I can’t frame my choice in terms of an elusive notion of electability. Democrats are notoriously dense in their attempts to choose a crossover candidate with appeal to “swing voters.” Shall we revisit John Kerry 2004? Setting aside substance, Democrats have performed more successfully when choosing nonobvious, off-kilter choices, like a sax-playing, lip-biting governor from Arkansas or a Black first-term senator named Barack from Chicago’s South Side. Neither Gov. Clinton nor Sen. Obama looked clearly “electable” in February, but both earned victory (and reelection) by tapping into the zeitgeist of their respective moments and activating latent Democratic voters.
Anyone but Trump? Nope.
I resist the anyone-but-Trump crowd’s urging to just flip a coin because anyone seeking the Democratic nomination is better than our incumbent president. I don’t subscribe to that channel. Votes cast in March are the only firewall standing between us and the horror of having to choose between Mike Bloomberg and Donald Trump in November. The only thing I have decided is that I am #NeverBloomberg and shudder at facing the “feel you up” or “pat you down” doomsday scenario.
The Democratic challenger will shape the general election. I want a candidate who will center the voices and experiences of marginal communities in our fall 2020 conversations about tax codes, criminal justice, national infrastructure, and gender equity. These conversations, ideas, voices, and debates matter even if the Democratic nominee loses. (Catch your breath—I said “if.”) It may be true that any Democrat is better than Trump, but I am not flipping a coin. Democratic primary voters have the power to expand or constrict the universe of the possible in our public discourse.
Who, then, should get our vote? Let’s find out.
Even as a nerd who makes policy spreadsheets, I am not ready to choose Elizabeth Warren as my candidate. Even as a pragmatic gradualist, I am not ready to go all in for Biden. Even with my desire to have a robust debate about progressive ideas, I am not feeling the Bern.
I am a middle-aged, Black, female, chronic voter in a swing state. Honey, Black women like me are the demo, the target, the engine, the backbone, and the key that unlocks the White House. Democrats win when Black women vote — with a caveat. Democrats win when Black women vote in historic numbers.
In 2020, Democratic victory will require the overwhelming participation of Black women. To the extent that Black women are undecided or uninspired, Democrats are unelectable.
Sisters have always turned out to vote at rates much higher than our collective socioeconomic indicators would predict. In 2008 and 2012, we did more than that: Black women voted at rates higher than any other demographic. Here in North Carolina, we made up nearly one quarter of registered women voters in 2012 and turned out in rates typical of nations where voting is compulsory. With Michelle’s husband on the ballot, Black women voted as though it were illegal not to vote. By 2016, Black women labored under newly imposed voter-suppression efforts, and our share of the electorate fell as Trump won the White House. In 2020, Democratic victory will require the overwhelming participation of Black women. Yet to the extent that Black women are undecided or uninspired, Democrats are unelectable.
The clock is ticking. Tomorrow, along with millions of others, I will have to vote or forever hold my peace. I have watched the debates, candidate forums, and commercials, but I wanted to hear from the Black women who have committed their talents and expertise to helping these candidates earn the nomination.
Here’s what they had to say.
Nina Turner on Bernie Sanders
“Sen. Sanders has a deep commitment to changing the material conditions of everyday people,” said Nina Turner, national co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “Black people do not need someone who is going to flirt with the status quo. We need someone with a clear and deep analysis of both race and class.”
Sanders knows that “the heroes and sheroes at the center of the struggle are Black folk, and he does not want to push his way into that space. He refuses to pander.”
Nina Turner and I have known one another for a decade. She was a frequent and favorite guest at the table of the MHP Show (which aired on MSNBC from 2012 to 2016), always bringing intellectual and moral clarity to discussions about voting rights, reproductive justice, and racial equity. Turner and I have shared laughs, meals, and secrets, but I have never shared her passionate support of Sanders. So I asked, “Why Sanders?”
“It is abundantly clear this nation has never answered the clarion call for racial justice,” Turner said. “Every generation is charged with moving us closer to that goal, and Sen. Sanders is the one person willing to take the necessary risks and to battle all entrenched interests, including Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, even the Democratic Party.”
Not convinced, I pushed: “Sure, I always hear my key policies, like criminal justice reform, health care expansion, and environmental justice, but for me, his racial analysis is missing or muffled.”
Turner responded, “Some of us try to push Sen. Sanders to be more explicit about race when he speaks with the media or in debates. This man has been on a justice journey for decades. He is keenly aware that he is not Black and that he never faced the same danger as Black activists, even when he shared frontline work with some Black folk during the movement for civil rights. It is his understanding of race and racial vulnerability that keeps him from talking too much about it. He knows that the heroes and sheroes at the center of the struggle are Black folk, and he does not want to push his way into that space. He refuses to pander. I understand the Bernie Sanders you are looking for, because I have a chance to see that Bernard Sanders regularly. And it is the Bernie Sanders [that] Erica Garner saw when she personally created that endorsement video for him back in 2016.”
“But, Sis,” I pushed, “I am reluctant to become a Sanders voter if it means having to be a coalition with the Bernie Bros.”
Even as she condemned the most egregious hostility of some supporters, Turner reminded me that digital nastiness is hardly the exclusive domain of Sanders supporters. She’s not wrong. If you’re looking to swim in a cesspool of racism and sexism, take a quick dip the horror Nina Turner’s @ replies on Twitter. And even mainstream analysts have called out the Black women working for Sanders.
“Black women are the most powerful and the most vulnerable members of our democracy,” Turner concluded. “We use what we have to make magic for our families, communities, and country. At the same time, we are subjected to attacks so brutal we sometimes cannot rebound. One thing I know for certain is Sen. Sanders will never equivocate in his advocacy for what we need to change our material conditions. That matters to me as a Black woman.”
Ayanna Pressley on Elizabeth Warren
I was reluctant to talk with Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D- MA) about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy. Impressed with how Pressley has used the power and platform of her congressional seat since being elected in 2018, I have an almost unhealthy adoration of her. If she suggested I jump off a cliff, I’d probably do it. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.) When talking about why she supports Warren and serves as a national co-chair for the campaign, I steel myself against the possibility that her endorsement alone will convince me.
“Elizabeth Warren is not claiming to be a savior. She is promising to be a partner.”
“Elizabeth Warren has been my senator, my friend, and my partner in legislative action,” Presley began. “She has earned my endorsement. She has earned it because the senator engages the most affected communities in creating every plan, proposal, and policy she has advances. Elizabeth Warren is not claiming to be a savior. She is promising to be a partner. Frankly, I don’t need a savior—I have one. We all need partners and co-workers in this long struggle for justice.”
I prefer leaders who create partnerships rather than promise salvation, but this distinction has not always been readily apparent in the version of Senator Warren we see in debates. So I asked Pressley whether the super-smart professor-with-a-plan is genuinely collaborative.
Pressley responded, “Senator Warren is a wonderful professor. She is an even better student. She asks more questions and listens more carefully than anyone else on the campaign. She remembers every story she’s told—not to use in her next stump speech, but genuinely to ask, ‘What can we do?’ She sees you. She sees me. She sees us. She names us. She acknowledges the power of the federal government to create conditions that can help alleviate Black suffering and invest in Black excellence and is determined to wield that power for that purpose. At her core, Elizabeth is a hardworking, good-faith partner who wants to be held accountable.”
I was not surprised to learn that Warren is focused on action even in her private moments on the campaign. That Warren “has a plan for that” is a truism bordering on caricature. Even a casual visit to the campaign website reveals clear, specific, detailed plans of action for a wide range of domestic and global concerns, including targeted policy proposals for Black communities. This legendary policy clarity is foundational to Pressley’s support.
“Policy is my love language, and Elizabeth Warren speaks it fluently,” Pressley said. “Long before this presidential campaign, Elizabeth and I connected as women of faith. We prayed and worshipped together many times. She is not a candidate who appears in our houses of worship the week before election day. She has been by my side during moments of great joy and difficult personal struggle. This steady presence developed bonds of trust. Ultimately, she earned my support through an unwavering commitment to create and fight for the policies that can change our lives. From Black maternal health to predatory for-profit colleges to epidemic gun violence, Elizabeth does not run from hard things. She leans into them. By every metric, she has the strongest anti-racist lens and the clearest racial justice plan.”
Symone Sanders on Joe Biden
I spent the better part of two days trying to get Symone Sanders on the phone. She is senior adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden, and I was pestering her as she was crisscrossing South Carolina to secure the must-win victory. Biden’s resounding victory in South Carolina is evidence that her time was better spent on the ground than on the phone.
Although I didn’t have the chance to talk with my sister-friend directly, I wanted to consult her guidance as I weigh my Tuesday choice. Back in December, Sanders talked with Politico about her choice to join the vice president’s campaign after serving as national press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election cycle. Here is what Daniel Strauss wrote for Politico about Sanders’ move to the Biden camp:
She’s sending a pro-Biden message to her fellow skeptical progressives, reminding them that ideological purity may, in this case, be less important than waging the most competitive challenge to Trump. Sanders, like the rest of the Biden campaign, is insistent that her candidate is the best one, not because of any single policy issue or a vision of America, but because of Biden’s ability to appeal to two constituencies that the next Democratic nominee is going to need: black voters and the Rust Belt workers who went for Trump in 2016.
The enthusiasm or indifference of African American women will determine if a Democrat wins the White House in 2020. In each campaign, there are extraordinary Black women working long hours with profound commitment to their candidates. The sisters who spoke with me were impassioned and insightful. They made me yearn for an America where I would be undecided because the Democratic primary had fielded four well-funded, broadly supported, badass Black women candidates. Now that would be a super Tuesday. And surely the dance moves would be better than what Tom Steyer gave us last Friday night!