At an open plan loft space in central Atlanta the sense of excitement among assembled Democrat voters was palpable, despite the grey sky outside.
As the city prepared to hold the fourth debate in the Democratic presidential primary, Stacey Abrams the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who last year came within 50,000 votes of becoming the first female African American governor in the US, delivered a brief address: “We know that when we can fight together, when we can stand together, when we can vote together, our nation changes,” she said as the diverse crowd applauded.
Tonight’s debate, which will see a smaller field of the 10 leading Democratic 2020 presidential candidates spar for two hours, is the first of this season to be held in America’s deep south. It occurs in a city with a majority African American population and in a rapidly diversifying state that the Democratic party hopes will break with decades of precedent and swing blue in 2020, following Abrams historic run for the governorship that attracted the highest number of Democratic voters in Georgia history.
The state has not held a Democratic primary debate since 1992, an indication of how solidly Republican it has been for a generation. But the party’s choice of Atlanta, say some observers, is a testament to the power that black voters in this region will hold in this upcoming primary season and potentially in the general election.
“This is a way of the party tipping its hat to recognition that black voters play an outsize role in primary selection, particularly in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday,” said Ted Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Centre for Justice who specializes in race and electoral politics.
“These states also have black mayors in places like Birmingham, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi, so even though they are Red states, their significant black population is important for the primary and signals the role of local black governance in organizing voter participation and turnout levels.”
While many pollsters have focused on the tight races shaping up in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which are overwhelmingly white, in South Carolina, which votes days after these two states in mid-February, 61% of Democratic primary voters in 2016 were African American.
It is here, with overwhelming support from black voters, that frontrunner and former vice-president Joe Biden is currently polling at massive margins ahead of his rivals.
While Johnson cautions that African American voters should not be seen as a monolithic bloc, particularly during primary season, he attributes Biden’s widespread support in the community to pragmatism and the desire to defeat Donald Trump in 2020.
“Going into this, I was hoping that we would see the black vote split across maybe three or four candidates in order to break the myth that black voters all vote the same, think the same, have the same policy preferences. But because Trump is such a polarizing figure and so unpopular among black voters, the thing that’s mobilizing most black voters is beating Trump. And the idea is that Joe Biden is in the best position to do so.”
Although other so-called “top tier” candidates, like Masachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, are currently struggling to poll over double digits among black voters in South Carolina, despite their expansive racial justice platforms, it is South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg that lags furthest behind.
According to a poll released on Monday, Buttigieg, with his chequered record on race and policing in Indiana, is attracting 0% support among African Americans in the state. Despite this, the 37 year-old is expected to be targeted by his rivals during the debate following recent polling in Iowa that placed him in the lead.
Wednesday could also mark an opportunity for US senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker – the only black candidates in the field – to reconnect with the electorate after falling out of the top tier in recent months.
It has not escaped many observers that despite this being the most diverse Democratic primary in history, the entire top tier is composed of white candidates.
Former Housing secretary Julián Castro, the only Latino candidate in the field, has not qualified for the debate due to polling numbers. Tom Steyer, the white billionaire hedge fund manager who has never held elected office, will appear.
“I think there’s work for the Democratic party to do, frankly,” said Keneshia Grant, assistant professor of political science at Howard University. “In terms of figuring out what they can do to increase the likelihood that their diversity is reflected at the top of the ticket.”
Grant recognizes the pragmatism among African American voters described by Johnson, but cautions that current polling should not be seen as determinate of the final outcome.
“I think there are many black voters who don’t get reported on who have imagination, who remember Barack Obama being the underdog in 2007 and coming from behind to beat Hillary Clinton. And so I would say that even though these polls suggest at this time Joe Biden is the frontrunner, I can imagine a scenario where folks start to change their tune once they believe that another candidate is more viable.”
Nikema Williams, chair of the Georgia Democratic party and the first African American woman to hold her position, argues that presidential candidates hoping to attract minority voters in the state should pay attention to Georgia well beyond today’s debate.
“I’m looking forward to inviting candidates to come here in a very real way, not just discussing issues on the debate stage,” she told the Guardian. “That’ll show me who’s serious about engaging black voters, engaging Georgia Democrats and winning the state.”