Black voters are getting a significant amount of attention these days.
In many ways, it’s a welcome development: After years of helping Democrats secure crucial election victories, black voters are being recognized as an influential voting bloc. This was perhaps most notable in 2008 and 2012, where their increased turnout helped deliver the White House to Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
But black voters had been wielding their power even before this, in situations like the 1984 Democratic primary, where the support of black voters single-handedly turned Jesse Jackson into a contender, or the 1992 primaries, which saw black voters help Bill Clinton secure the party’s nomination. Since the 1990s, black voters have largely backed the candidate that has gone on to win the Democratic nomination, cementing the group’s status as powerful players in presidential politics.
But that does not mean black voters are a monolith.
Just a reminder … Note that Democrsts haven’t won white folks in decades.Note that Carter, Clinton, and Obama all won without winning white folks.Moral: follow the votes and invest in communities of color pic.twitter.com/cA7JMr1J34
— Leah D. Daughtry (@LeahDaughtry) September 15, 2019
In other words, there isn’t a single black vote. There are many. A seemingly monolithic black electorate often coalesces only after individual black voters make decisions based on a nuanced set of political calculations.
“Black voters today are behaving in a very smart and strategic way that they’ve always behaved in, but no one ever really lets us be smart,” says Keneshia Grant, an assistant professor of political science at Howard University. “Black voters get viewed as sheep who are being told where to go, and I think that’s wrong and the data shows that this is wrong.”
Black voters, much like other voters in the electorate, have varying ideologies. Some are more conservative than others. Some are far more progressive. And there other splits as well, along lines of age, gender, income, and geography. This has always been the case, and yet, it is rarely discussed in mainstream political conversations about courting black voters.
It’s an important reality, though, and could become particularly significant in the current election cycle. While prior elections have shown a united black vote, over the past few months black political journalists, strategists, and academics have made the argument that the 2020 race is incredibly fluid. With so many candidates in play, black voters could potentially spread their vote across multiple candidates in early-primary and caucus states, or push their support to a different candidate than former Vice President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner.
In fact, a lot of black voters (like voters more broadly) have said they are open to switching to a different candidate or are undecided about who to support, and the next few months of campaigning could be especially important for any campaign hoping to attract as many black voters as possible. Candidates need to do more than black outreach, though: They also must show a clear understanding of black voters, their needs, and their concerns.
“Based on the different demographics of the black electorate, you do have some people making different choices about who their top candidate is or who their second choice is,” Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a group focused on increasing black political power, tells Vox. “That is what is most distinctive about the black vote now. It isn’t exactly going en masse to one place.”
What black primary voting has looked like in prior elections
To understand what’s at stake when it comes to winning black voters in 2020, it’s helpful to understand how this group has voted in previous elections. A 2019 analysis from NBC News offers one of the most comprehensive histories of black voting behavior for the nine competitive national Democratic primaries that have occurred since exit polling began in the 1970s.
That project found that black voters have become an increasingly important share of the Democratic Party, going from a bloc that drew national attention as it flexed its muscle during the 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson — forcing concessions and promises from the Democratic Party in the process — to a group that 20 years later helped Barack Obama gain the electoral advantage necessary for him to clinch the 2008 Democratic nomination.
In what is perhaps more predicative to the 2020 election, though, the NBC News project showed that black voters have become powerful because of how they vote, with this demographic often rallying around a single candidate as the primary voting continues — but not always before. Securing a high margin of votes from black people can make it easier for candidates to win decisive victories in states with high black populations, helping to tip the nomination toward them.
Take, for example, the aforementioned 2008 Democratic presidential primary. While then-Sen. Barack Obama’s success over Hillary Clinton is often remembered — as is the fact that black voters began to overwhelmingly support him after the Iowa Caucus — what often isn’t as readily acknowledged is that for months before this, there had been a noticeable split in the black voters backing him and the black voters who weren’t. Early in the contest, Obama was supported mainly by younger black voters, as older voters and many black politicians backed Clinton, pointing to her established history in the black community, her work during her husband’s presidential administration, and for some, their belief that Obama wasn’t well-known enough to be electable.
But when a majority of this group flipped to Obama in 2008, they helped him advance further, propelling him to a win in South Carolina weeks later. Obama also won every primary held in a state where blacks were more than 20 percent of the population, and in some states, he managed to win over as much as 90 percent of black voters.
That primary offers a lot of lessons. For one, it shows that the margin of victory for a candidate among black voters matters almost as much as the victory itself, meaning that it’s in a candidate’s best interest to push their support among black voters as high as it can possibly go. The 2008 primary also provides one example of how black voting power has worked in recent elections: showing how a presumed frontrunner who was banking on black support (Clinton), and actually did have a lot of support from specific groups of black voters and the black political class, saw much of her lead evaporate after a different candidate proved they could also get votes from different portions of the electorate.
And after the primary, the 2008 general election also showed that black voters responded well to continued engagement and outreach later in the election cycle, with their turnout reaching historic levels in 2008 and 2012.
But if 2008 showed how black voters could help turn a candidate from an underdog to a presidential nominee, eight years later, in 2016, black voters showed how withholding their votes could keep a candidate’s chances as a longshot.
In this cycle, Clinton, again the presumed frontrunner, faced off against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. However, this time, Clinton’s lead with black voters held, helping her win the nomination. But there were fractures among black voters that were often overlooked or dismissed in discussions of the contest: a large chunk of young black voters, much as they had for Obama, broke for Sanders early and stayed with him through the primary, and also played a key role in Sanders winning in Michigan. But what differed this time is the fact that Sanders was unable to pull many older black voters to his side.
The story of black voters in 2016 has largely focused less on the primary than on the general election, with news reports in the immediate days after the November election focusing on how black turnout declined compared to 2008 and 2012. But when it comes to actually understanding differences among black voters, the 2016 primary matters: It shows some important differences among black voters that have only grown more pronounced in 2019.
In 2016, the differences between Sanders and Clinton supporters weren’t just a matter of a younger voter/older voter split or a geographic one. Clinton also did better with black women than black men and attracted more support from more moderate black voters looking to maintain the gains of the Obama era rather than adopt an agenda of radical change. On the other hand, she also got less support from young black progressives looking for a jolt to the system, many of whom criticized Clinton’s record on issues like racial justice.
This reveals some important divides in how black voters settled on her candidacy and shows that while the majority of black voters may have backed Clinton, there were many different reasons and motivations behind why they did (and in some cases did not). More importantly, the way these divides intersect and diverge is critical to understanding the behavior of the black electorate now. Elections may have shown that black voters often become an electoral monolith, but they are far from being an ideological one.
“Black America is no more monolithic than any other group,” Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies African American politics and black voter behavior patterns, told Vox. “Whatever the spectrum is for ideology and politics, black voters are scattered all along that spectrum just like any other racial group.”
Biden is currently the leading choice for black voters — but that lead isn’t indestructible
In the 2020 election cycle, it’s likely that we will see high black turnout and enthusiasm. Many black voters will mobilize for a number of reasons: a desire to oust Trump, an interest in a new anti-racist policy agenda in the White House, and a hope for change on the issues affecting their daily lives and communities.
“Black voters want to back the candidate who is going to win, and in the Trump era, that also means backing the person most likely to push Trump out of office,” Johnson says.
With the start of primary voting still a few months away, we can’t definitively say who will benefit from this. Currently, polling shows former Vice President Joe Biden having a large lead among black voters, beating his competitors by double digits with this group. Biden is banking on black support, and his team has increasingly indicated that it sees the majority-black South Carolina primary, which will happen on February 29, as critical to his chances of winning the nomination. According to an October poll from Winthrop University, for now, his plan is solid: 46 percent of black voters in South Carolina say he’s the most likely candidate to get their support.
“The black folks support Biden, next to Jesus right now, that’s where he is,” Dot Scott, head of Charleston’s NAACP chapter, told Vox’s Li Zhou recently, pointing to Biden’s deep ties to black communities in the state and his role as Barack Obama’s vice president.
When the primary began earlier this year, some experts thought things would turn out differently. “I went into [this election cycle] thinking that this would be a cycle where we would see black voters’ political diversity at play,” Johnson told me. He noted that last winter and spring, the field seemed to be wide open and full of relatively unknown candidates of different ages, racial backgrounds, genders, and political ideologies, potentially leaving black voters to spread out across multiple candidates.
But that changed once a particular candidate entered the race. “As soon as Biden jumped in, it sort of ruined the calculus,” Johnson says of the former vice president’s leap to the top of the polls this spring, a position he has maintained (with some stumbles) in the months since. “He’s such a known quantity.”
Somebody gotta say it: The overwhelming support for Joe Biden is based purely off fear that white folks won’t vote for anyone else on that stage. Because there is no way you see him in these moments and think he’s actually the best candidate.
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 13, 2019
As I wrote in June, there are a lot of reasons why some black voters started lining up behind Biden early. Some black voters say their support makes sense given their pragmatism, and they believe that Biden is the only “electable” candidate who will be supported by more moderate white voters and some conservatives unwilling to vote for Trump. Other black voters place a lot of importance on Biden’s role as Obama’s vice president and support him due to that history. And some black voters believe that Biden is actually the best policy choice, that his incremental approach to civil rights and call for a return to “normalcy” is the right one in this particular moment. There are voters who believe more than one of these things and others who believe all three.
“There is an aspect of this that is about who can put up the fight that is going to be required to take Trump down,” Shropshire tells me. “And some black people know that part of Biden’s narrative is that he’s a fighter and that he fought for Obama. And that is not insignificant.”
Some of these arguments have been pushed frequently by the Biden campaign, which has repeatedly emphasized the former vice president’s connection to black voters, particularly the older, more moderate voters who regularly turn out for elections. “They have a sense of who my character is and who I am — warts and all,” Biden told a group of black reporters in August.
Polling also shows that this group is supporting Biden strongly. An October poll from Morning Consult, for example, found that Biden has 48 percent support among black voters aged 45-54, 53 percent among those aged 55-64, and 56 percent among those 65 and older.
Biden is also quick to remind voters of his role in the Obama administration, which also likely plays a role in these numbers. “The Biden campaign has been masterful at messaging Biden as the ‘great friend and ally of Barack Obama,’ who Obama loved so much and chose as his vice president,” Grant, the Howard University professor, says. “To the extent that black people are saying that they support Joe Biden, I think that they are supporting who they think has the highest likelihood of being competitive in a general election and their opinion of Barack Obama.”
However, she adds, “I don’t think they like Biden as an independent person who’s running and has policies they are enamored with.”
This latter point is telling: Given criticism of the former vice president’s record on some issues and arguments that he isn’t strong enough on matters of racial justice to be the best pick for black voters, there could be an opening for a different candidate to pull support from Biden in the coming months. But that candidate, and anyone else looking to shrink Biden’s lead with black voters, needs to be working to make inroads with them now.
Other 2020 candidates have a chance to capitalize on splits among black voters
While Biden might have the majority of the black vote now, his support can’t really be taken for granted. Just look what happened to Clinton.
Generally speaking, at this point, someone defined as a “black Biden voter” looks very similar to those who strongly backed Clinton in the early months of the 2008 primary: they’re more likely to be older, are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party, and in Biden’s case are more interested in returning to a stable state of affairs after Trump than voting for a change agent.
And while all of this is currently working in Biden’s favor, it isn’t a completely sure thing that this will permanently be the case. After all, much like in 2008, many of these voters could still move if they believe another candidate stands a better chance of winning the primary. As Angela Geter, the Democratic Party chair in South Carolina’s Spartanburg County, told Vox earlier this month, “Nobody has it in the bag. Everybody needs to put in the work.”
In fact, recent reporting from the New York Times has highlighted that some of the splits among black voters seen in recent elections are already highly noticeable in the current primary contest. Older black women and men, for example, are far more sold on Biden than their younger counterparts, a trend consistent with the 2008 and 2016 primary cycles. A September Essence poll found that black women aged 18-34 ranked Biden fourth, putting him behind Sanders, Harris, and Warren. Older black women, however, ranked Biden first, supporting him in high enough numbers to make him the overall leader in the poll.
And while October polling shows that roughly 40 percent of African American respondents support Biden right now, his numbers with black voters under 45 are lower than that. The aforementioned Morning Consult poll, for example, finds that just 32 percent of black voters ages 35-44 support Biden. For the youngest bloc of voters, aged 18-29, this number falls to 29 percent.
The figures match with what experts tracking black voters of different ages have seen. Those who are not Biden supporters are more likely to be (but aren’t exclusively) younger and are often further to the left in their ideology. When they look at Biden, they see not stability but a candidate whose call to return to the Obama era is insufficient to deal with the current political reality — a reality that differs in many ways from what Obama himself faced while in office.
There are also questions about how Biden would navigate a political landscape that has been further shaped by a surge in activism among the black Left and a growing desire for antiracism among some white liberals. And as Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote in September, the fact that Biden differs from the 44th president in terms of style, politics, and demographics means that he “will not be able to pursue an Obama-like campaign or run an Obama-like administration,” something that goes against his efforts to present himself as a natural continuation of the Obama presidency.
There have also a been series of issues on the campaign trail — including Biden’s opposition to using busing for school desegregation in the 1970s, his support for the 1994 crime bill, and his many recent unforced errors when discussing race and policy — that are a large part of the reason why many younger black voters say they’re looking to take their votes elsewhere. Some of them are trying to convince their elders to do the same.
Many of these Biden skeptics would likely fall into the roughly 20 percent of respondents who told the Black Census Project earlier this year that the Democratic Party is taking African Americans for granted. And these voters want their chosen candidate to have a clear vision for how they plan to fight racism and aid the black voters who help deliver the nomination and, they hope, the presidency.
Perhaps recognizing this, some candidates trailing Biden with black voters have fought to make inroads with specific groups separate from the often older and typically more moderate black voters Biden is currently leaning on.
Sanders, for example, has worked to build on the connections he established in 2016 with younger progressive black voters and he has also worked on outreach to other black voters attracted to his calls for a political revolution.
Harris has targeted black women, who are among the most consistent black voters. In the wake of critiques from some African Americans that a black woman can’t win against the current president, she has also been more proactive than other candidates in going after Trump.
Booker, the only other black candidate, has noticeably struggled to find an exact lane with black voters. But he has focused on highlighting a message of hope and justice while speaking with mannerisms of the black church, suggesting that for now at least, he is likely looking to peel voters from any of the other candidates.
Other candidates have largely used issue agendas and discussions of racial justice, be they platforms focused on specific issues like police violence and reform (Julián Castro) or larger “black agenda” platforms addressing a number of issues comprehensively (Pete Buttigieg) when making appeals to black voters.
In another primary cycle, these pitches — and the fact that the Democrats have the most diverse primary field in history — might have been more persuasive to black voters. But right now, many these candidates, and especially the candidates of color, haven’t really risen to the top of the list for many black voters.
The candidate who currently faces the biggest pressure to reach black voters — and also stands to make the biggest gain with black voters as of now — is Warren, who has seen her level of national support among black voters increase several points in recent months but has not done well enough yet to catch Biden. In the coming months, her efforts to make inroads might face additional hurdles among some groups of black voters who value familiarity and name recognition.
Warren’s strategy has largely revolved around using her policy proposals — from her plan to provide support to historically black colleges and universities and black students struggling with student loan debt to her plans for black women worried about maternal and infant mortality — to highlight various ways that racial injustice has affected black Americans’ quality of life. And as she works to cut into Biden’s lead in South Carolina, Warren is also trying to build connections with black community leaders in an effort to grow her base of support.
Those efforts are being watched closely by black voters, and they could become extremely important in the coming months. “She’s playing the long game — black voter outreach isn’t something where you do it well for a month and then see voters swing,” says Johnson. “But if Biden stumbles, she’s there to pick up all of that support because she’s putting in the work now.”
Undecided black voters could also play a big role in the primary and the general election
Of course, all of this talk about black voters and the differences between them overlooks something else about black voters a few months before the first primary contests: A lot of them are still undecided about who they will vote for. In fact, some polls show that this undecided group is arguably bigger than the voters who have sided with any of the candidates in the field.
An August poll from Pew, for example, found that while Biden held the lead among black voters, 45 percent of black voters polled weren’t currently supporting a candidate. The more recent Winthrop University poll found that while 46 percent of likely black voters in South Carolina currently support Biden, 44 percent of black respondents said they might change their mind about who they are supporting and 9 percent said they don’t know yet who they are voting for. Just 41 percent said they were very sure about their vote.
Looking at the specific groups of black voters candidates are courting — like young voters and black women — a lot of them remain undecided, too. In June, the University of Chicago’s GenForward Survey found that 24 percent of young black respondents aged 18-36 said they would support someone not currently in the primary race. In September, the aforementioned Essence poll found that roughly one-quarter of the black women it contacted were undecided.
This suggests that black voters are carefully weighing their options and are looking at multiple candidates or, in the cases of other black voters dissatisfied with the options, are deciding if they will vote at all. And coming after years of black political strategists arguing that the Democratic Party needs to do a better job of engaging with black voters beyond eleventh-hour calls for them to get out the vote on Election Day, what happens in the coming months could be especially important to convincing some black voters that they should turn out next November.
“The party is going to have to get the people who haven’t been participating to participate,” Grant says, noting that some undecided or infrequent black voters “will support the person who went and got them.”
How candidates go and get voters will depend on their outreach. Polls of black voters have shown that there are multiple priorities for different groups, including issues like health care, education, climate change, racism, and criminal justice. Who black voters, individually, will ultimately vote for is far from settled. Their process of determining who to support can’t be reduced to simple statements about a universal “black vote.”
“It would be a misjudgment for people to think that any of these numbers are baked,” says Shropshire. “There’s just so much time left.”