Illustration: Elena Scotti (Getty Images)

Before you read The Root’s 2020 Presidential Black Power Rankings for Week 5, we want you to close your eyes and use your imagination. It’s January 2023: Lil Nas X has just accepted a Grammy for his 32nd remix of “Old Town Road”; Facebook has just rolled out its new uncomfortably honest slogan, “Yeah, We’re Listening”; and the Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and rookie phenom LeBron James Jr., are lapping the entire NBA.

Then, boom—an unarmed black woman is shot leaving a Detroit grocery store by an off-duty white cop wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Tensions are high, protests have started and the mayor has no idea what to do. Who do you want addressing the nation on primetime television? President Beto O’Rourke? President Kamala Harris? President Joe Biden flanked by his VP Stacey Abrams (I told you this is imaginary). We did this little exercise because when the Black Power Rankings come out during a debate week, we try to imagine life in black America if the person speaking on stage was president.

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So how did the candidates fare this week? No shade to the CNN moderators, but when the candidates did have more than 22 milliseconds to answer a question, we didn’t hear a lot about environmental racism, fair housing or racial healthcare disparities in metro Detroit, where the debates took place.

As usual, our ranking methodology is below.

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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There was a lot of fighting about this week’s rankings between me (Dr. Jason Johnson, politics editor of The Root) fellow judge Marcus Ferrell (former African American outreach director for Sen. Bernie Sanders) and other committee members about what FLEX factors should weigh more. When I mean fighting, I mean intense phone/text arguments interspersed with “You my fam, but...” Followed by statements that were definitely un-family like.

In the end, we came up with this week’s rankings, may God have mercy on our Twitter feeds. This week’s big riser? Sanders moves up three whole spots, Okurrrrrrrr (that’s a hint). This week’s big loser? Mayor Pete Buttigieg manages to drop three spots—maybe that Pete magic is wearing off.

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#1: Sen. Cory Booker

Spicy debate Cory is our favorite brand of Cory. Booker was feisty, funny and more passionate than any candidate over two debate nights. Booker didn’t drop any big policies this week, but he did drop bombs on former Vice President Joe Biden throughout this debate. The Root gives Booker a black vernacular pass (It’s All up in the Kool-Aid not Dipping in the Kool-Aid) because his criminal justice clapback on Biden got him props from the Daily Show to the Kool-Aid Man himself and the hashtag #BookerBurns trended on Twitter. Booker has moved up in most polls, anywhere from third to fifth place with black voters, which explains why he was one of the few candidates to mention voter suppression and the importance of black female voters. This is Booker’s first week at the top spot; let’s see if he can keep it.

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#2: Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren went up to Detroit and caught a body. Even “Medicare for All” couldn’t resuscitate former Rep. John Delaney after Warren blasted him (and other Democrats) for being all “Yes, we can’t” during the debates. Warren also gets points for her viral interview with 11-year-old Jaden Jefferson, who, quite frankly, I think we should hire as the official Gen Z reporter for The Root. She also did her usual carpet bombing of policy proposals and really defended her healthcare plan well during the debates. Warren is hovering around 4 percent with black voters in recent polls but is tied or ahead of Bernie Sanders in most national polls. Warren loses the top spot—not because she did anything wrong, but because Booker did so much right.

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#3: Sen. Bernie Sanders

“Vote Daddy Bernie, BITCH!” – Cardi B, 2019

Anytime you can get an endorsement and interview from Cardi B and access to her millions of followers you move up. Sanders’ Mr. and Mrs. Smith team-up with Elizabeth Warren to slay all the moderates during their debate was a savvy, if accidental, move that worked as well. He is also basically anywhere from fifth to third in national polls of black voters. Bernie could’ve gone even higher this week but...

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Sometimes, it be your own people...

Sanders campaign press secretary Briahna Joy Gray came for the Power Rankings on Twitter last week, and rather than, say, accepting our invitation for dialogue like just about every other contender has, she stuck to subtweeting and hate clicks. Look, we get it, Briahna probably doesn’t like The Root, and given her long history of concern-trolling about the “perils” of “identity politics” and co-signing for “liberal” anti-black racists like fellow Intercept alum Zaid Jalini, we aren’t surprised. So let’s put this in language she’d understand: In these rankings, #AllStaffMatters. Bernie understands the importance of black media and you’d think his press secretary would’ve gotten the memo that it’s better to communicate with the largest online black magazine in America instead of performing for Bernie Bros online. Guess we were wrong.

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#4: Sen. Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris was so confident going into the second debate, she dropped her new healthcare plan the same week knowing she could defend it on a national stage. Maybe she was a little too confident. Her healthcare plan is fine, and her HBCU startup plan isn’t bad policy, but it’s the kind of cautious half-step policy that doesn’t bring the kind of change most black graduates can fully access. When Harris snatched Biden’s soul in the first debate, she apparently took on some of his bad habits. Harris’ criminal justice record as California’s attorney general is her biggest weakness. So how was she caught off guard by Hawaii’s Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s attacks when Gabbard had been broadcasting all week she was coming for Harris like Omar on the empty streets of Baltimore? We got on Biden for not being ready for Harris’ critiques; we have that same energy for Harris. Yes, Harris called out Gabbard in a post-debate interview—but if a clapback falls in the forest and nobody hears it, was it really a clapback? One spot of good news for Harris this week? She now leads in Nevada campaign endorsements, including one from ’90s R&B singer Al B. Sure. Which makes sense, because with the way Harris is dropping in our poll, she’s gonna have to start campaigning “Night and Day” to make up ground.

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#5: Former Vice President Joe Biden

This week’s polls show Biden with a commanding (53 percent) share of the black Democratic vote. Look, that’s about the same percentage of white women who went for Trump, so clearly lots of black folks still have love for Uncle Joe. The catch is, he can’t rely on old black folks to stick with him forever. Especially when he just managed to hold off Harris’ healthcare attacks in the debate, only to take L’s from Booker on criminal justice and Castro on immigration. Joe has to step his game up.

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#6: Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro

Everyone on the committee likes Julian Castro. Everyone who watched the debates liked what Julian Castro had to say. Julian Castro has a black campaign manager who had a fantastic feature written about her this week. So, Castro moves up one spot. Here’s the problem, though; Julian Castro has been relatively thin on policy drops, he’s polling at zero with black voters in most polls, and he hasn’t fully qualified for the September debates, which is basically the final cut-off for the nomination. If he wants to finally make the top 5, he needs to put in a full week of campaigning to the black community.

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#7: Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete takes the biggest drop of the campaign, partially because other candidates did better, and second, because of some of his own failings. At some point, it’s about you not me. After a brief improvement, Mayor Pete is down to 0 to 1 percent again with black voters in the last few polls. It’s not name recognition, it’s not homophobia, it’s not a lack of media coverage; Mayor Pete just isn’t resonating with black folks outside of South Bend, Ind. Next, Mayor Pete, along with just about everybody else on stage, was put at the kid’s table in the debate with Sanders and Warren. Does he get credit for getting permission from Frederick Douglass’ family to use that name for his mini-reparations plan? Most definitely. Did he give a nice answer on race during the second debate? Yes. But ultimately, Mayor Pete’s excuses for not connecting with black voters are wearing thin.

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#8: Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke was the only candidate who realized the debate was actually in Michigan and he integrated that into his campaign. He cooked dinner with a black family in Flint, highlighting environmental racism and structural inequality all in one meal. Maybe that pumped him up, because on the debate race question, Beto managed to mention slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, the Voting Rights Act, Kwanzaa, shea butter, bantu knots and reparations all in one answer. But he, like Mayor Pete, was overshadowed in this debate by Sanders and Warren. His campaign just can’t get black traction.

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#9: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Why is Kirsten Gillibrand angrier about Eric Garner’s death than New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio? Didn’t he tell us he’s got a black son? She did well in the debates, capitalizing on her unique position as the only white woman on stage willing to call out the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump. Look, Gillibrand is like the anti-Becky, willing to put her privilege on the line for the rest of us, even if it makes other white folks uncomfortable. That earns her another move up in the polls; now we’ve got to see if she can back it up with policy.

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#10: “Spiritual Guru” Marianne Williamson

There are only a couple of numbers I know off the top of my head; The code to my office, my PayPal password, and how much money I’ve got in my bank account. But when Marianne Williamson rattled off exactly how she calculates reparations for black people in America—much to the shock of the CNN moderators—our committee was impressed. She also described racism as a dark psychic force, which makes me think she’s got some sort of Jedi-level plan to stop it because I don’t think reparations will be enough. Shockingly, Williamson is also tied with Booker and Harris for the most campaign visits to South Carolina. Why does she drop one spot? Not because she believes that you can chant away cancer or positive think your way out of HIV, but because if you’re going to go ham on reparations, you gotta give me some idea how you can get that past #MoscowMitch beyond a drum circle.