AGAINST THE GRAIN

African-American Voters Will Be Democratic Kingmakers in 2020

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are getting liberal buzz, but have limited appeal to blacks. That should create an opening for a more-moderate alternative.

Vice President Joe Biden hugs President Obama during a ceremony in the State Dining Room of the White House on Jan. 12.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
June 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

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.

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