Sheila Tyson knows Southern politics.
The Birmingham, Alabama, native registers voters Republicans and Democrats, black, white, Latino and Asian helping them get identification and persuades them to get in the policymaking process.
Tyson, 58, was one of millions of black Super Tuesday voters key to former Vice President Joe Bidens victory in 10 of the 14 states holding primaries that day. Tuesdays sweeping win mirrored Bidens strong showing just days earlier in South Carolinas primary, where many black voters described him as the practical choice, not necessarily their first choice.
I think he has direct knowledge of the presidents seat, Tyson said. We dont need anyone going into the White House behind this mess that Trump has created, practicing and trying to get it together. Its like trying to make a cake. Theres a certain kind of cook, like my grandmamma, who could come in, taste the mix and tell you exactly what was missing. Biden knows the recipe.
In the days since the field broke sharply for Biden, supporters for other candidates have expressed disbelief at best derision and racist disdain at worst for the black voters responsible for his recent successes. But for many black voters, Biden was the best known option; the candidate with the right experience who could appeal to the widest cross-section of Democrats. He was, to others, President Barack Obamas forever vice president, a man who could take on President Donald Trump in what could be a bare-knuckles battle for the White House.
He also had a meaningful ground game, according to Tyson.
Jill Biden, the candidates wife, visited Birmingham, where Tyson lives, multiple times. Bidens staff met with black voters to talk about their top priorities and accepted what Tyson called a packet from activists outlining those concerns. The Biden campaign bought tables at local banquets, ads in local event programs and ran what Tyson called a real campaign on what we knew was a limited budget.
In comparison, while Tyson had never in her 21 years in politics seen anything like the television ad blitz from the billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg. But where she didnt see him was on the ground: Not at a Birmingham church, school or community center. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had big ideas but few details, she said. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was bright, admirable and, of course, had intricate plans but did not register as someone with the capacity to deliver a sailors cussing in combat with Trump, Taylor said.
Then there was Bidens own presence in Alabama.
Joe Biden attends a ceremony to mark the 55th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march at Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Ala., on March 1, 2020.Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters
In January, he spoke at the 16th Street Baptist Church, site of a 1963 bombing by white supremacists that killed four black children. And when he stopped Sunday in Alabama after a resounding win in South Carolina, he committed to some of the issues listed in the packet: a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, expanding Obamacare, eliminating gender and racial pay disparities, and support for a modern, rail-based mass transit system in Alabama.
By Super Tuesday, Tyson was team Biden.
Deborah Breedlove, a retired financial adviser from Columbia, South Carolina, who is active in local Democratic politics, said that her vote for Biden hinged on a realistic approach to putting a Democrat in the White House.
“I sensed a strong lean toward Biden that had nothing to do with conservatism or moderate thinking,” she said. “Older African Americans know the deal and the hand dealt to us. The sooner we feel our power, the sooner this destructive administration will be dismantled.
An NBC News analysis of exit polling data found that among all voters, those who prioritized the defeat of Trump in November voted overwhelmingly for Biden.
But, the pragmatism of black voters, experts say, should not be confused with ignorance or some form of political captivity.
Thats not unlike our day-to-day life, Candis Smith, an associate professor of political science and African American studies at Penn State, said. How black folks navigate the world, how we deal with every major feature of our lives must involve some sort of calculation about what white people are going to do, is this safe to do around them, what will the consequences be? How must I smile to ease any fear you may have of me? Which injustice will I protest? That is part of black life in America. Why would voting be any different?
Others see a self-limiting but logical voting pattern that merits examination.
Its frustrating, Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the nonprofit Black Voters Matter, said. Even most of the black people voting with Biden arent with him because they think hes best on the issues. Its a lot of, I’m with him because I think hes the best person who can beat Trump.
Back row, from left, Deborah Breedlove, M.L. Kohn, Sandra Boozer-Greene and H. Loretta Brown. Front row, Lorenzo Breedlove, Frances Suber-Houston and J.P. Jones.Eli Warren / for NBC News
In North Charleston, South Carolina, last week, Black Voters Matter held a forum. Health care, specifically Medicare for All, and medical costs prompted the largest number of moans and amens, he said. But when the organization conducted an onsite poll, Sanders, the candidate who has called for universal health care, lost by a few votes.
Thats something because, thats just not the way we have made change in this country, Albright said. Acting in concert with what we think the white community will support will not get us far. We have always moved this country forward by forcing other people to adjust to what we feel is just and what we feel is possible.
Sitting in the pews at the First Nazareth Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, days before the primary, J.P. Jones, 71, a retired school district employee, sighed when asked about her vote.
J.P. JonesEli Warren / for NBC News
Biden, Jones said, unfortunately.
The lifelong Democrat added, Im going to make a default choice that Im not excited about.
Jones was excited about Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey and devastated when their campaigns ended. To beat Trump, she said, she went with Biden.
I really think he can handle Trump, she said. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat, and I think a lot of his promises are just that promises.
M.L. Kohn, 69, a retired science educator in Columbia said days before the South Carolina primary, she was deciding between Biden and Sanders. She liked the Vermont lawmakers progressive policies and that he had galvanized young people, but removing Trump from the White House is her top priority. So she went with Biden.
I’ve been a Bernie advocate but I felt he shot himself in the foot with his Castro statements and his socialism stance we need a sure winner in November, she said. Trump would tie socialist so tight around his neck that he would choke on the debate stage.
Nia Byas, 20, a student studying mass communications at Benedict College, a historically black institution in Columbia, said she liked Warren but ultimately voted for Biden because he didnt come to South Carolina using black figures to get black votes.
Nia ByasEli Warren / for NBC News
She said she saw the former vice president himself working for the vote.
Not like Tom Steyer who brought Juvenile, Yolanda Adams, and DJ Jazzy Jeff to a historically black college, she said, referring to the billionaire activist from California who dropped out of the race Saturday.
She said House Majority Whip James Clyburns endorsement of Biden did not influence her, but he would not have won South Carolina if it wasnt for Clyburn.
James Martin, a veteran born and raised in South Carolina, retired from a career in sales and marketing in Maine. He arrived at Azalea Drive Church of Christ in North Charleston Saturday with three candidates on his mind.
Martin said he was a fan of Bloomberg and Steyer. But Bloomberg wasnt on the ballot in South Carolina and Steyer, who strikes him as, a good guy with a good mind, has no experience and no chance, Martin said. Sanders wasnt a serious consideration, he added, describing him as an inexplicably angry white man with few details about how to finance his ideas.
So he cast his ballot for Biden, a fighter with a solid reputation on the world stage. Biden can beat Trump and straighten out the damage the president has done to environmental regulations and Obamacare, Martin said.
The thing is, Biden does know how to get things done, Martin said. Black people, we shed a lot of tears and blood for this privilege. So I am always going to vote. And I am always going to do the practical thing.