OPINION — Round One of the great Democratic primary debates is over. The consensus delivered by the political class seems to be that former Vice President Joe Biden underperformed, generally failing to meet expectations. So did Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren had a good night, albeit only sparring with the second tier for the most part with her main competition for the far left vote, Sanders, not onstage.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg held his own. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro had a good night, while the rest of the field tried but failed to gain traction. But if polls taken since the debate are right, it was California Sen. Kamala Harris who emerged as the big winner with her surgical strike at Biden’s civil rights history and credentials.
Just ask her staff, who couldn’t resist boasting in great detail to Politico about her campaign’s orchestrated plan to take down Biden in the debate, using the issue of busing as a foil to strike a chord with African American voters. Why this issue and this voter group? Because Biden’s continuing strength in the polls depends heavily on his continuing strength with African American voters.
Yet, Biden seemed totally unprepared for Harris’ head-on assault on race.
Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had both criticized his comments about working decades ago with segregationist senators to get things done. Taking Biden’s words out of context, both candidates landed some blows on the former vice president in the days leading up to the debates, so he should have been ready for more incoming fire on the issue. He wasn’t, and it cost him.
The polls speak
While the poll numbers over the past two weeks have varied, they all found Biden losing at least some ground after the debate, with Harris as the biggest beneficiary. A Quinnipiac survey showed the biggest tightening with Biden dropping from 30 percent to 22 percent, while Harris climbed 13 points to 20 percent. CNN’s post-debate poll had Biden dropping 10 points to 22 percent with Harris rising from 8 percent to 17 percent.
But it’s important to remember that of the six national surveys (including Quinnipiac and CNN) that offer comparable data before and after the debates, Biden’s support only dropped by 2 points overall in three of them.
Whatever Biden’s slippage actually is, he has no one to blame but himself for Harris’ uptick. Over the past few weeks, he has apologized for what has been called his penchant for inappropriate gestures. He’s had to explain his campaign’s use of language in his environmental and education plans lifted — at times, word for word — from outside sources. He’s apologized to Anita Hill for the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings.
Finally, last weekend, he apologized to a mostly African American crowd in South Carolina for any “pain” his remarks about Senate segregationists may have caused.
A personal apology tour is generally not the best path to the White House.
Still, Biden remains in the lead while Harris has been forced to do some embarrassing post-debate backtracking on her busing stance, which now appears to be rather the same as Biden’s. And she has tried, more than once and not very successfully, to reinterpret her support for ditching the country’s private health insurance system for government-run “Medicare for All.”
Still in his corner
Harris may have won the night when it comes to the first debate, certainly in the eyes of the media. But there is little evidence to claim that Biden has lost the nomination, for one important reason — his continuing support within the African American community, a fact the Harris campaign must have clearly considered in crafting their debate strategy.
Despite Harris’ harsh attack on Biden’s record on busing and race, for example, the Economist/YouGov survey before the debate showed Biden with 39 percent of of the African American vote; after the debate, he was at 36 percent, not a significant drop. Harris went from 5 percent of African-American voters pre-debate to 13 percent after the debate, according to this poll.
The post-debate Quinnipiac survey, however, put Biden at 31 percent and Harris at 27 percent among black Democratic voters. Yet another poll after the debate, this one from The Washington Post-ABC News, found Biden’s support in the African American community at 41 percent with Harris far behind at 11 percent. (Unlike the Economist/YouGov poll, these surveys did not delineate African American voters in their methodology used for earlier polls, so we cannot compare “before” and “after” debate numbers.)
So which poll is right and did Harris’ civil rights attack strategy produce the results she needed? In the end, will it be a wash or even backfire on the freshman senator? At this point, we simply don’t know without more data, especially data focused on the African American community. What we do know is that Biden’s slippage with African American voters after the first debate was minimal.
If I had to make an educated guess, I’d bet that Biden’s support in the African American community comes mainly from older voters, 45-plus, who reflect a slightly different perspective on civil rights issues, one based on personal experience. After Biden took flack for his comment on working with segregationist senators, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn and civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, along with a number of their colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus, defended the embattled candidate, while younger progressive members of color were notably silent or critical.
An NBC News analysis of the 2016 Democratic primary vote found that Hillary Clinton won African American voters overwhelmingly with 70 percent of the vote, but it also found an age gap between Clinton and Sanders. The older the African American voter, the higher Clinton’s winning margin was, reaching a high of 89 percent with voters over 60.
If Biden can maintain his strength with these voters, he may well benefit, as Clinton did, from the fact that older African Americans also tend to vote in much higher percentages than their younger counterparts. That propensity of older Americans to vote in higher numbers crosses all party and demographic lines.
As long as Biden maintains his strength with African American voters, who make up somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent of the Democratic primary vote, he has the opportunity to go the distance but only if he steps up his game.
The fact that Biden lost little, if any, African American support in the first debate is the one bright spot in what has been a bleak month for the former vice president.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.