Politico

Opinion | How the VP Choice Could be Biden’s Biggest Racial Gaffe Yet


As the country is within days, or perhaps hours, of learning who Joe Biden will select to be his running mate, last week’s primary elections in Michigan might serve to eliminate one variable and one candidate from the equation. Voter turnout in Michigan’s election last week, along with the most recent polling, suggests that Biden won’t need Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on his presidential ticket in order to win the state in November. Yet Biden reportedly met with Whitmer over the weekend anyway.

According to recent reporting, most of the other shortlisted candidates are Black women: Kamala Harris, Susan Rice, Karen Bass, Val Demings. Biden needs to think carefully about the message he’s sending to Black voters with this decision.

True enough, Whitmer is the only VP shortlister with executive governing experience, which could be a big deal to voters looking at what could be the oldest newly elected president in history. (Although, in some parts of the state, that experience isn’t all golden, with many residents unhappy that Flint’s water is still unhealthy and Michigan public schools, particularly in Detroit, are still under-resourced.)


If Biden picks Whitmer over a field of qualified Black women, it is likely to shake Black voters’ confidence in Biden by reminding them of his long and troubling record on racial issues. They are likely to conclude that when push came to shove, he was just more comfortable having a white person as his VP. And that could hurt him a great deal more than some votes in Michigan.

When it came to Whitmer, until last week, the main theory from some pundits was that in order for Biden to reverse the Democrats’ narrow 2016 loss in Michigan, he would need to have the popular governor on the ticket. However, recent polls of Michigan voters show Biden polling high and Democratic enthusiasm surging. Biden has expanded his lead over President Donald Trump, including one poll last week which shows Biden with an 11-point margin. More important, there was record voter turnout in Michigan’s elections last week, as 2.5 million voters participated. Not only was this higher than the previous August primary record of 2.2 million voters set in 2018, it was also significantly higher than the August 2016 primary which saw only 1.4 million ballots cast.

If you are wondering what these record turnout numbers mean in terms of party enthusiasm, we can look at the primary races for U.S. Senate, the one statewide office on the ballot. The candidates in both parties were unopposed, but the total Democratic votes surpassed the votes in the Republican primary, 1,177,175 votes versus 1,002,235 votes, respectively.

To many observers, all this suggests that the electoral map does not require Biden to select Whitmer to be his running mate. So the natural conclusion that many Black analysts and voters will make is that if Biden selects Whitmer over the four or five Black women he has himself acknowledged are on his shortlist, then he will be doing so based on some other factor or factors beyond electoral math.

What factor could that be? For many Black voters, that’s where the selection could evoke the discomfort they’ve had with Biden over the years on racial issues. Biden and his campaign team have indicated that Biden has a strong desire to select a VP with whom he is “simpatico.” If Biden selects Whitmer, it won’t be a stretch for those voters to see “simpatico” as a code word for someone who looks like him.


Despite the fact that Biden served as VP to the nation’s first African American president, his difficulties with discussing racial matters have long hurt his reputation with Black voters. As my organization, Black Voters Matter, has worked in voter mobilization across 15 states, people have told us that they have their doubts about Biden specifically on racial issues. During the primary debates, he stumbled in defending his previous positions on school desegregation and busing, he made remarks essentially equating race with poverty, and he responded to a question about repairing the legacy of slavery by suggesting that Black parents need to be taught how to raise their children.

In regard to criminal justice and policing, his track record, which already includes the 1994 Crime Bill, has become even more problematic given the current movement against police violence. As some protesters called for defunding the police, Biden’s promise to do the opposite by putting more funding into police departments for community policing was, at best, tone deaf.

Many Black voters were already unsettled by recent comments from people close to Biden suggesting that Kamala Harris, and previously Stacey Abrams, were too ambitious and would be too focused on becoming president. Although these comments did not come from Biden himself, the fact that they reportedly came from someone in his close orbit—as well as his failure to address them—has already done some damage. For many Black voters, such easy swipes at “ambition” echo the ways racial biases show up in policy matters and affect our daily lives, including job application processes similar to his vice presidential sweepstakes.

In spite of the gaffes, policy shortcomings and a VP vetting process that has been nearly as disrespectful to Black women as Biden’s treatment of Anita Hill, the fact remains that Biden received close to 70 percent of Black support during the Democratic primaries. However, there are still lingering questions about the large percentage of Black voters who did not participate in the primaries. Some of those infrequent voters may stay home in November if they do not believe Biden will be a strong advocate on racial issues—and if he keeps reaffirming their sense of him as a guy who simply doesn’t get it when it comes to race.

Black voters—especially those who did not already vote for Biden in the primary—are watching Biden very carefully right now. His recent racial missteps have not gone unnoticed, and the question they are asking now is, who does Biden want—truly want—to be his running mate? If Biden selects Whitmer despite the field of notably qualified Black women, and despite the increasingly favorable electoral map in Michigan, it will cement a growing impression among Black voters that Biden has a race problem after all.

Continue

About the author

Lisa

Leave a Comment