Biden campaign tries to shore up his African-American base with pitch aimed at HBCUs

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is set to launch a program designed to organize grassroots support at historically black colleges and universities, focusing on electability as a key part of the pitch to students.

The new effort is meant to address a weakness in Biden’s otherwise strong support from African-American voters. While he has solid black support in key early states, national polls show younger African-American voters don’t share the enthusiasm for him and are more likely to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which is part of a larger trend with the youth vote overall.

Biden’s status as one of the frontrunners in the Democratic primary has been fueled by backing from African-American voters who favor him by a wide margin. And in the final weeks before Democratic primary voters head to the polls, Biden’s team is aiming to shore up his support among African-American youth by highlighting his plans for historically black colleges and universities. 

As part of the program, called HBCU Students for Biden, campaign surrogates will visit HBCUs around the country to highlight the former vice president’s plan to provide increased funding to these schools. Biden campaign staff will also be training student leaders to organize on their campuses. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden visits with students at Texas Southern University in Houston in September. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The campaign is kicking off the program at the same time as it launches a four-day “South Carolina Soul of the Nation” bus tour, which will feature HBCU student leaders and other campaign surrogates making appearances at African-American schools in that key early state. Biden’s campaign also released a web video claiming he is offering “the boldest presidential plan for HBCUs in our history.”

“Historically black colleges and universities built America’s black middle class, and Joe Biden knows that’s the backbone of our country,” a narrator says in the clip.  

As he faces primary challenges from more progressive Democrats who have stronger youth support, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Biden and his team have made the case that he has a more realistic chance of defeating President Trump. A television ad released by Biden on Tuesday highlighted polls showing his margins against Trump in key battleground states. 

Even as polls indicate young people aren’t enthusiastic about the former vice president, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, one of Biden’s top African-American surrogates, told Yahoo News she believes there is excitement around removing Trump from office. Bottoms predicted young people will ultimately coalesce around Biden if he secures the Democratic nomination.

“I hear people make this narrative, people aren’t excited or whatever. The narrative is, we just need people to go and vote,” Bottoms said. “You can be unenthusiastic as long as you go and vote. You can be just overcome with joy as long as you go and vote. Whatever your feelings are, we just need people to go and vote.”

And Biden’s allies believe African-American youth are particularly likely to be swayed toward him due to his connection to the community. Bottoms attributed Biden’s strength with black voters to what she described as the “authentic nature of his relationship with the African-American community.” 

According to Bottoms, one root of this bond is that Biden worked with a sizable black population in his home state of Delaware and is the only leading Democratic candidate from a state that has an HBCU. 

But the main factor driving Biden’s connection with black voters that Bottoms and other allies cite is that he served as vice president to the country’s first African-American commander in chief, Barack Obama. According to Bottoms, Biden’s work alongside Obama resulted in “affection” and “appreciation” that “runs deep” in the black community. 

“For many African-Americans, it’s not lost on us that this was an older white man willing to stand behind a younger African-American man and to be a part of his team as a No. 2,” Bottoms said of Biden. “That may be something that may appear very subtle to a lot of people, but to African-Americans it’s a very strong signal.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who is a national co-chairman of Biden’s campaign, said the former vice president’s “numbers are so solid in the African-American community because of his entire body of work” and suggested that Obama’s willingness to partner with him was an endorsement of his prior record. 

“President Obama, just like the rest of the African-Americans, looked at his whole track record and decided that here is somebody that deserves support and, in President Obama’s case, he decided to make the second-most-important man in the United States,” Richmond said.  

Nia Page, president of student government at Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, will be one of the co-chairs of HBCU Students for Biden and is traveling to colleges as part of the South Carolina bus tour. Page said she was drawn to Biden because of his experience and ties to Obama. 

“He has the most expertise, and he also worked with Obama,” she said. 

Biden poses for selfies with students at Texas Southern University. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden’s political career has lasted about 50 years, and as rivals have sought to dent his black support, they have questioned past comments he made and elements of his record. Bottoms, the Atlanta mayor, announced her support for him last June, on the day after Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., attacked him on a debate stage for his prior stance on busing in Delaware.

“There are these moments that are amplified, but at the end of the day, it’s about knowing somebody’s record and knowing their heart,” Bottoms said.  

Along with highlighting his electability and connection to Obama, the Biden campaign hopes this new initiative will promote his policies for HBCUs directly to the schools’ student bodies. Historically black colleges and universities were established during segregation and served as key resources for African-Americans, particularly in the South, as they sought education. Many of the schools, which include a mixture of public and private institutions, developed a distinctive and iconic culture. Despite this rich history, in the decades since integration, HBCUs have experienced decreased enrollment that has been dubbed a “death spiral,” and many have closed their doors. 

Biden’s HBCU plan calls for over $70 billion to address funding disparities that exist between these schools, other minority-serving institutions and traditionally white colleges. This money includes $10 billion in programs designed to increase retention, enrollment and employment rates upon graduation for HBCU students. 

While Biden has pledged more money to HBCUs than his leading rivals, he is not the only candidate who has sought to bolster these institutions. In 2017, shortly after he took office, Trump indicated he would make HBCUs a priority. Trump later signed off on a bipartisan $250 million funding package for the schools. 

Richmond, the congressman and Biden campaign co-chair, said he believes Trump’s support of HBCUs is “hollow” and “disingenuous.” He blamed Trump’s rhetoric for recent racial incidents, including one in which police were called after an African-American graduate student at Yale was found napping in the common area of her dorm, and a situation in which black men were arrested at a Starbucks

“You can’t say that ‘I care about HBCUs’ but you don’t care about the black students that go to them. You’ve created an environment of intolerance,” Richmond said. “You know all the stories, the ‘living while black’ stories, and that is a direct correlation from Donald Trump and the fact that he will give cover to those extreme ideologies.”  

Biden’s progressive Democratic rivals have also announced initiatives to aid HBCUs. Warren has proposed $50 billion in discretionary funding for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. While that figure is less than the amount proposed by Biden, Warren also has a proposal to cancel student debt and establish free tuition at public colleges that could benefit many HBCU students. Sanders has called for $15 billion in funding that would go to HBCU graduate programs, infrastructure and cancellation of student debt. He has also called to make all public and private HBCUs and minority-serving institutions tuition-free. Biden’s education plan includes two years of free community college and elimination of some student debt, which his allies have suggested is more realistic than Sanders’s and Warren’s platforms.

In the end, Biden’s HBCU pitch also comes down to electability and his campaign’s claim that he is the most likely candidate to defeat Trump. 

Some young Democrats are clearly unenthused about Biden. There’s even a meme on the social media site TikTok in which teens beg, “Please don’t make me vote for Joe Biden.” But Richmond offered a simple message to young people who might prefer the policies Biden’s more progressive rivals are putting forward on education and other issues. 

“I would just remind them of one of the first rules of service: You can’t govern if you can’t win,” Richmond said. “No matter what your ideas are, they go nowhere if you can’t win the election.”

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