Black voters in South Carolina helped propel former Vice President Joseph R. Biden to the top of the crowded 2020 Democratic field and they continue to fuel his drive to the nomination, but whether that translates into the crucial high turnout he needs in November remains an open question.
In several states with large black populations, Mr. Biden didn’t receive as much support from them as did former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primaries when she squared off against Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders — who is also Mr. Biden’s key competitor this time around.
For example, in South Carolina and Virginia, Mrs. Clinton respectively captured 86% and 84% of the black vote. By comparison, Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries garnered 78% and 89% in those key states.
Mr. Biden’s share of the black vote remained in the 60s. He received 61% from black voters in South Carolina and 66% in Virginia.
“There is certainly, as a whole, an energy problem for him,” said Ryan Rhodes, a Republican strategist and presidential campaign veteran. “Right now, they were just trying to stop Bernie. They don’t want to acknowledge the numbers are real.”
Exit polls from Michigan and Missouri on Super Tuesday, when more than a dozen states cast their ballot for a Democratic nominee, revealed less than half of all Democratic voters were enthusiastic about Mr. Biden.
The lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Biden could be concerns over his age and health, said Towson University professor Richard E. Vatz, a scholar of political rhetoric and campaigning.
“In addition, the economic improvement of the African American electorate, pre-coronavirus, lessens support and strength of support for even a historically beloved candidate such as Biden,” he added, referencing a February unemployment rate that was below 6%, before the economic downturn from the spread of COVID-19.
The rate had fallen about 2 percentage points since President Trump took office.
In the 2016 general election, the turnout for black voters declined for the first time in 20 years, dropping to 59.6% after peaking at 66.6% in 2012, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
The dramatic decline in turnout, coupled with a spike in white voter turnout, hurt Mrs. Clinton, especially in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin that sealed Mr. Trump’s surprise win in 2016.
Still, Mr. Biden has competed in a more crowded field than Mrs. Clinton did in places such as South Carolina, which could contribute to his smaller share of the black vote.
Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist who is black and has worked on several presidential primaries in South Carolina, dismissed talks about a lack of enthusiasm for Mr. Biden.
“It’s a different race,” he said, forecasting large turnout in November from minority communities that want to push Mr. Trump out of the White House.
“Certain communities have more to lose than others,” said Mr. Seawright.
Fernand Amandi, a managing partner of the public opinion research and consulting firm Bendixen & Amandi, said the coronavirus crisis makes predicting voter behavior next to impossible.
“The coronavirus disrupter which will ultimately be what matters most in determining how people vote and how they hold candidates accountable in November,” Mr. Amandi said.
Illinois, which went to the polls March 17 amid social distancing policies to combat COVID-19, recorded significant black voter support for Mr. Biden. He garnered 73% of the black vote, surpassing the 70% Mrs. Clinton enjoyed during the 2016 primary. Mr. Obama, though, enjoyed 93% support from the key demographic in his home state in the 2008 primary.