Elizabeth Warren, now a co-front-runner with Joe Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination, has put in some of her most dazzling performances in front of black audiences.
At a CNN town hall in March in Jackson, Mississippi, she talked boldly about the enduring stain of chattel slavery and her plans to address lingering racial inequality.
A month later, she got a standing ovation at the “She The People” conference where she set the pace on black maternal health care policy. Jesse Jackson lavished her with praise, seeming to single her out after her speech at the Rainbow Push conference in June.
And at Congressional Black Caucus event in Washington, DC, in early September, she drew the largest applause of all the candidates, two of whom were CBC members. She has also grabbed endorsements from prominent black women, such as Roxane Gay.
Yet, Warren, whose campaign feels most like a movement, has struggled to translate that appeal to black voters on the ground. On the campus of a small historically black college here this weekend that was very much evident – she only drew a handful of black voters in a crowd of about 1,000 people. Event attendance, particularly on a Saturday afternoon in 90 degree weather, is a very rough metric – Biden’s crowd at the same venue was mostly white as well. But it’s clear that Warren, like Bernie Sanders before her, is struggling with black voters. She is all the rage on black twitter, not so much elsewhere. A new CNN poll has her lagging Biden in this state among black voters by 41 points – she notches 4% among black voters. (Sanders gets 13%).
Asked Saturday about closing this gap and why she thinks it persists, she answered:
“The way I see this is that African American women have really been the backbone of the Democratic Party for generations now. They get out there and they fight for you. What I’m doing is showing up and trying to talk to people about why I’m in this fight. About what’s broken and how to fix it and how we’re building a grassroots movement to get it done. And it’s not just one policy, it’s everywhere. Education it is. It’s about our historically black colleges and universities. It’s about closing the black white wealth gap by canceling a lot of the student loan debt that’s out there. It’s there in health care to deal with the maternal health mortality rates that hit black women so much harder than any other group. It’s about housing and attacking redlining straight on. I’ve got a lot of plans and what I want to do talk to people about all of them. Because ultimately we have a country that keeps working better and better for those at the top and isn’t working for much of anyone else and I think we got a chance to change that.”
Her very specific plans are certainly breaking through with some voters. Casey McClure, who came with her mother and father to Warren’s event here with very specific reasons why she backs the Massachusetts senator.
“I’m voting for Warren because I can’t afford college anymore. I also like her plan for black women so we won’t die so much in labor,” McClure, 26, said. “And she reminds me of Obama because she gives us hope.”
McClure said she is trying to convince her dad, Willie McClure, 65, to back Warren. He seems to lean-Biden because of the Obama connection, but is still making up his mind.
“I like Warren because of the fire she brings. What she’s bringing to the table is the main issues and that’s what we need,” McClure said. “And I like Biden … he’s got this calm attitude about himself. If one of them is not elected, I’d like to see them each at least serve in administration.”
Deitra Pichey, 32, came with her brother Marcus Bigger, 34, to hear Warren. While she backs Andrew Yang, she thinks Warren has a shot with black voters.
“I think her policies definitely align with the African American community, it’s just that we need to hear her more,” Pichey said. “She needs to go to more HBCUs to speak to our community because there’s a lot of issues that affect us as a whole that people running for the Democratic nomination need to hear about.”
Bigger has settled on Warren because of her plan to forgive student loan debt.
“I think she is hitting on the right points,” he said. “I don’t know if a lot of black voters have tuned in to hear her message.”
After her event at Clinton College, Warren went to nearby soul food restaurant where she posed for pictures and signed the wall. She will return in the coming weeks for an event with Rep. Jim Clyburn, the venerable South Carolina congressman who the Democratic candidates are all courting for an endorsement.
As in 2016, there is likely to be a generational divide among black voters, with younger voters opting for the not-Biden candidates.
Sanders got 52% of black voters under 30 in 2016, yet those voters were only about 3% of voters in a CNN analysis of 27 states with exit or entrance polls. Among black voters over age 30, it was 82% Hillary Clinton to 17% Sanders. That block of older black voters were about one-fifth of Democratic voters, giving Clinton a big base of support in 2016 that has now largely shifted to Biden.
While Biden has drawn criticism for his praise of his work with segregationist senators and his rambling answer (record players?) to a question about slavery in the last debate, there remains a reservoir of good will toward him, particularly among older black voters.
Biden’s retort when people question him on issues, particularly on race, is to say that people know him. And in this state, and all across the South among black voters that carries a lot weight. Southerners figure out who you are by figuring out who your people are. And Biden still has the clearest answer.
“When people see Biden, they see Obama’s VP and they feel like he can relate,” said Tracey Easter, 44. “He is human. We saw him lose his son. He is a good and decent man.”
CNN’s Pamela Kirkland and Ila Wilborn contributed to this report.