Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images)

Welcome back to The Root’s 2020 Presidential Black Power Rankings, where our select committee of activists, consultants, politicians, and analysts decide where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to black people.

This week’s rankings are curated by Dr. Jason Johnson, Politics Editor of The Root (yours truly) and our returning judge Marcus Ferrell, former Black Outreach Director for Bernie Sanders in 2016. When we launched the Black Power Rankings, we expected some volatility from time to time because presidential campaigns are long and have a lot of twists and turns. Footage of a candidate caught laughing at a racist joke on a hot mic at some fundraiser in 1997 gets released, they drop five spots, or they release a highly detailed plan for tackling the racial wealth gap between black and white Americans and move up the list. In other words, normal things.

However, last week’s first Democratic debates for the 2020 election and the fallout over the weekend, the new poll numbers and the new fundraising numbers on Monday turned our Power Rankings into the presidential version of Chutes and Ladders. Some candidates jumped up like they had the holy ghost in them and some slid so far down they fell out of the top 10. In case you missed last week’s Power Rankings here is a breakdown of our methodology each week.

How do you rank a campaign’s Black Power? Well, we have our “FLEX” rating, aka:

  • Finances: Are you paying black staff, advertisers, consultants?
  • Legislation: What legislation are you pushing or have passed for black people?
  • External Polling: No matter how good you are for black people, if your poll numbers are terrible we can’t rank you that high!
  • X-Factor: What’s your rhetoric like? How do you handle a crisis or the kinds of events and scandals that directly impact black lives?

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This week’s biggest loser? Former Vice President Joe Biden, who dropped four spots and would’ve done worse but fortunately for him, debate hosts and talking heads Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd called for time. This week’s biggest riser? Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under forever President Barack Obama, Julian Castro, who wins the award for most revolutionary reason to speak fluent Spanish in a debate. Lastly, we bid Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) aloha (You know aloha means goodbye too, right?) as she’s dropped out of the top 10 after just one shining week.

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#1: Sen. Kamala Harris

Even our most skeptical insiders were almost unanimous that Sen. Kamala Harris is on top of the Black Power Rankings. In the debates, Harris switched from Sen. Harris to prosecutor Harris and grilled Biden like he was Attorney General William Barr with an iPhone full of Russian emails. Prosecutor Harris should’ve put herself in handcuffs for elder abuse for the way she schooled the former vice president on busing, history and “civility” for two hours in front of 15 million viewers.

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The best part of Harris’ week? Having that same white man that she took down and literally every other Democratic candidate having to turn around and defend her 24 hours later when her blackness was attacked by Donald Trump Jr. and racist trolls online. Harris’ gambit paid off both ways: In the first post-debate poll Biden dropped 10 points and Harris jumped 9 points. (Biden, 32 percent to 22 percent, Harris, 8 percent to 17 percent). Subsequent polls show Harris virtually tied with Biden in Iowa and gaining on him with black voters.

While some online still opine that Kamala is a cop, right now she’s running these campaign streets like it’s Training Day and nobody has been willing to come for the queen.

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#2: Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Warren didn’t set the world on fire during the undercard Democratic debates, but she stayed on brand and didn’t make mistakes. Moreover, she apparently had some excellent off-the-record meetings with activists in the Chicago area over the weekend and had some solid targeted policies that would help African Americans. Missed her speech to Rainbow PUSH in Chicago? She’s got a C-SPAN for that. You know your campaign is winning when you gain ground on Joe Biden and push Bernie Sanders to fourth place without having to debate either one of them. She’s also jumped up to a respectable 12 percent among black voters in the first post-debate poll.

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#3: Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro

Castro’s performance got rave reviews from our judges and he put himself into the conversation as a real candidate and not just campaign fodder. He is the only candidate to get on a national stage and rattle off the names of unarmed black men and women killed by police. Now we’ll see if he can keep up this pace. 

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#4: Sen. Cory Booker

Don’t take Cory Booker’s drop as any failing on his part; it’s more indicative of just how good a week Castro and Warren had with black folks. Booker had a fantastic debate performance and followed it up with continued criticism of Biden’s fumbles on race. He even let a little bit of Newark slip out in his defense of Kamala Harris’ blackness. Even though I bet he cusses like Carlton Banks.

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#5: Sen. Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is lucky to maintain his position in fifth place on our Black Power Rankings. He didn’t do anything particularly impressive in the debates. He raised a ton of cash in the second quarter from a lot of young people. In other words, Bernie gonna Bernie. But he’s losing ground to Harris and Warren in the polls.

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#6: Mayor Pete Buttigieg

How did Mayor Pete manage to jump up two spots in our poll? He did something that Biden and many a white public official have failed to do when facing a crisis about police violence against unarmed black citizens: He said he was sorry. He took a small hit in the debates but left relatively unscathed. He rolled out his Douglass Plan of targeted black policies at Rainbow PUSH and he raised over $24 million in the second quarter. Not bad for a small town mayor. He’s still polling at zero percent with black voters though.

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#7: Former Vice President Joe Biden

Please tell me there is someone on the Biden campaign responsible for shaving him every morning because, with his penchant for self-inflicted wounds, he might bleed out before the next debate. Biden opened the door for Harris to hit him on busing, defended states’ rights, then after the debate earnestly suggested black kids in hoodies could *gasp* actually have a future outside of crime. Biden’s consistent self-owns are catching up to him; he dropped 7 to 10 percent in every post-debate poll and is now leaking black support to Harris as well. High-profile black endorsements like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms are great but no amount of co-signing can cover for bad messaging.

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#8: “Spiritual Guru” Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson got a boost this week for calling for reparations during a nationally televised debate, referring to the prime minister of New Zealand as “girlfriend” and channeling every white hipster African-American studies professor you ever had whose office smelled like hemp and patchouli. This may be the only debate Williamson may qualify for but she was the most Googled candidate after the second debate and that counts for something.

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#9: Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke didn’t do much in the debates except be a launching pad for Castro’s campaign. His Spanish made most audiences cringe and he looked utterly confused on some of the more nuanced discussions of immigration. Maybe he really wasn’t born for this...

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#10: Mayor Bill de Blasio

Did you know he has a black son? If not, he’ll make sure to remind you.