Less than three weeks ago, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) seemed like a top contender to be presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s vice president. The Biden campaign had started vetting her for the job, news outlets reported on May 10.
This made sense: A moderate senator from the Midwest, Klobuchar could help Biden secure support from white working class voters who turned to President Trump in 2016. After her own presidential run, which ended in early March, she proved she can withstand the intense media and opposition scrutiny of a national race.
A lot has happened since May 10. George Floyd died in Minneapolis on May 25, after police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes, launching a wave of national and global protests against police brutality, some of the largest U.S. demonstrations since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968. Klobuchar has come under fire for failing to prosecute Chauvin for an unrelated fatal shooting in 2006, one of the many times she declined to go after the police as a prosecutor in Minnesota.
As people across the country call for an end to structural racism, the Democratic Party is about to nominate a 77-year-old white man as its presidential candidate. Before the protests, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) seemed to be at the top of Biden’s vice presidential shortlist, along with Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), all of whom are white. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) was also considered a top contender.
While there is no changing the name at the top of the Democratic ticket, many are urging Biden to meet this moment by choosing a vice president who can speak personally to issues of structural racism in America. It’s not enough to just choose a woman, they say, as Biden pledged to do in the last Democratic debate: He needs to choose a black woman.
“Black people, and in particular black women, have showed up for the Democratic Party. Everything I'm hearing from Biden right now — it’s all good things. But I need action and I need to see it in the form of an intelligent, qualified black woman as vice president,” said Cherie Seymore, a 61-year-old black voter from Seattle.
Over the last few weeks, four black women have solidified their status as top contenders: Harris, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D), Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018.
“If George Floyd hadn’t died, Gretchen Whitmer would probably still be on the top of everybody’s list, followed by Amy Klobuchar,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, a national organization that promotes black women in political leadership. “But now the Band-Aid has been ripped off this infected wound that is racism. The only way to really do something about it is to do deep surgery — and put black women at the forefront.”
The protests have fundamentally changed the electoral calculus of the 2020 presidential race, said Peeler-Allen. While Biden’s biggest concern in early May may have been winning over working-class white voters in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, which went for Trump in 2016, now he has to focus on energizing the Democratic base, especially black voters.
“We know black voters are going to make this election,” said Nadia Brown, a professor of politics and African American studies at Purdue University. “And their level of enthusiasm matters.”
Democratic campaigns often take the black electorate for granted, said Brown, assuming that they are “captured voters”: Even if they don’t like every Democratic policy or candidate, she says, strategists know most black people will never vote for a Republican. Because of Biden’s connection to former president Barack Obama, she said, many thought he “wouldn’t have to do much” to win the black voters who turned out in record numbers for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Since Floyd’s death, she says, that thinking has shifted.
While black voters probably won’t come out to vote for Trump, says Brown, some could stay home in November. Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election in part because she failed to inspire Obama-era-levels of black turnout in a few key states, Brown says. Black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years. If more black voters had voted in Philadelphia, for example, Clinton could have won Pennsylvania.
Clinton played it safe with her vice presidential pick, said Brown, choosing a white, male senator from Virginia, Tim Kaine.
“I always thought Clinton would have done herself a lot of favors by picking a young, POC star,” said Brown. “Maybe one of the Castro brothers,” referring to Julián Castro, former mayor of San Antonio and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas).
Even before the protests, black voters, and especially black women, were hoping that Biden would choose a black vice president, according to a study conducted by Brown and other scholars at Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. Fifty-nine percent of black women said they would be “more enthusiastic” about voting for Biden with a black woman as his running mate.
Black voters aren’t the only Democratic voters eager for Biden to choose a black woman, says Peeler-Allen: The protests have mobilized white liberals on issues of race in unprecedented numbers. This group is looking for opportunities to help. Many would welcome the opportunity to vote for a black woman, said Peeler-Allen.
“It’s not just voters of color who are looking very carefully to see if he taps a woman of color.” If he doesn’t choose a black woman, she said, white progressives will be asking themselves, “What does that signal about the Democratic Party?”
While many suburban white women voted unexpectedly for Trump in 2016, many find “explicit and overt racism to be distasteful,” said Brown. The massive national momentum around these protests is likely reaching these women, she said.
“It makes people feel good to say, ‘I have done something historic around these race issues.'"
With a black woman on the ticket, Brown says, Biden’s candidacy could feel significant in a way it otherwise wouldn’t.
Biden might not need to worry so much about winning white, working-class voters in the Midwest: As a white man from a working class background, he already connects with that demographic, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of women and politics at the University of Virginia. Those voters also may not be as taken with Trump as they were in 2016, she said. Many voted for him for economic reasons — and now, because of coronavirus, a large group of them are unemployed.
“It just doesn’t look to me like there are big trade-offs in terms of alienating white working class voters,” said Lawless.
Of the four top vice presidential contenders who are black, Harris is the only one who has been a front-runner from the beginning. But the protests have also brought increased attention to her record as a prosecutor. As the state attorney general in California, she was notoriously tough on crime, supporting policies that put a disproportionate number of young black men in jail.
“Yes, she is a black woman. But she was also taken to task by black communities for locking up black and brown children,” said Brown.
Other lesser-known black women have been steadily gaining ground as potential candidates. While Demings and Lance Bottoms might have been on a list of top 10 contenders before the protests, said Peeler-Allen, now they’re probably in the top three or top five.
As American lawmakers craft legislation that responds to the protests, Peeler-Allen said, it’s critical to have “a voice at the table with the lived experience.” A black vice presidential candidate will be able to clearly articulate how various policy proposals might affect black communities, she says.
“White people don’t know what it feels like,” says Seymore. When Seymore tries to explain racism to her best friend, who is white, Seymore says, her friend tells her that she “gets it.” But it’s impossible for her friend to know exactly how it feels, she says.
“There is a difference between knowing about racism, having a friend who has experienced racism — and dealing with it your whole life.”
Biden will never fully understand how racism feels, Seymore says. She hopes he chooses to run with someone who does.