For all the talk about the power of progressives in the Democratic Party, one significant part of the Democratic coalition has been overlooked in the run-up to the next presidential election: African-Americans. Black voters made up at least 20 percent of the Democratic vote in at least 15 states during the 2016 presidential primaries (and comprise that share in three other states without exit polling: Louisiana, New Jersey, and Delaware). Without African-Americans, who gave 76 percent of their vote in the primaries to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders easily could have been the Democratic nominee. Sanders won 49.1 percent of the Democratic white vote to Clinton’s 48.9 percent.
Black voters have historically rallied behind one Democratic candidate. In 2008, Barack Obama’s ability to break Clinton’s lock on African-American voters was the main reason he upset the front-runner to become the Democratic nominee. Bill Clinton’s and Jimmy Carter’s personal history wooing Southern black voters were key factors in their out-of-nowhere nominations in 1992 and 1976. Back in the 1980s, Democratic candidates curtailed campaigning in black communities because Jesse Jackson’s campaign was so popular with African-Americans. Since 1976, the candidate backed by black voters became the Democratic nominee in seven of the nine contested nomination battles. (John Kerry comfortably won the backing of black voters in 2004, though he narrowly lost their support to John Edwards in South Carolina—when the nomination fight was still competitive.)
The lesson of recent political history is that the Democrats who are the darlings of white progressives—the so-called “wine track” candidates—usually fall short. In 2004, Howard Dean was unable to broaden his coalition beyond young voters and the most liberal elements of the party. He only won 108 delegates. Bill Bradley filled the progressive void against Al Gore in 2000, and didn’t win a single primary. Obama shattered that mold in 2008, but only by forging a rare alliance between “beer track” African-American voters and the more progressive elite wing of the party.
But the prospective 2020 field for Democrats is overwhelmingly white and unabashedly progressive. Democrats have all but ceded the South, with only three Democratic governors left in the region. And the party’s increasing progressivism doesn’t necessarily resonate with African-American voters, particularly the older generation who found little to like in Bernie Sanders’ insurgent candidacy.
Looking at 2020 polling is foolhardy, given how much could change before the campaign heats up, but it is interesting to see the early disparity between white and black Democratic voters in assessing leading progressive candidates. A Public Policy Polling survey conducted last December showed that the two progressive icons—Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders —polled at 48 percent among white Democrats, but just 27 percent among African-Americans. Cory Booker, the only African-American candidate tested, got the backing of 10 percent of black voters and 4 percent of white Democrats.
Choosing a nominee who will excite African-American voters will be critical for the Democrats in the general election. With Obama off the ballot in 2016, African-American turnout declined markedly, even with the high stakes of last year’s presidential election. It’s a key reason why Clinton lost narrowly in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. There’s no sign that African-American engagement will rebound in a post-Obama era, even as the Democratic base is agitating to be part of the anti-Trump resistance.
It’s hard to see some of the most-buzzworthy Democrats such as Sanders, Warren, and Al Franken fitting that bill. All hail from homogeneous states with small African-American populations. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another hyped candidate, is much more likely to win over wealthy liberals than black voters. An otherwise glowing New York Magazine profile described her as “stilted” and “hesitant” when delivering a speech to an African-American church in Brooklyn. Meanwhile, leading African-American pols such Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris of California have little governing experience. Both have the opportunity to build broad coalitions, but would start at a disadvantage.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the African-American electorate is that it’s monolithically liberal because blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic. In reality, there’s much underappreciated ideological diversity within the community. A Pew Research Center study last year found just 28 percent of African-American Democrats identify as liberal, with a plurality describing themselves as moderate. Other research has shown that middle-class black voters are less likely to support protest groups like Black Lives Matter, even as they champion civil-rights legislation. And black parents put a high priority on stability and continuity, which is one reason they tend to back establishment-oriented candidates in primaries.
That could create an opening for a more-moderate, experienced politician with a longstanding relationship with black voters. Only one person on the long roster of possible candidates really fits that bill: former Vice President Joe Biden, who would be just shy of his 78th birthday on Election Day in 2020.