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Don’t assume that black America has spoken in South Carolina

Biden’s victory in South Carolina was largely the product of the overwhelming support he received from black voters. But can he replicate that elsewhere?

March 2, 2020
black voters
Sean Rayford/Getty

This piece was originally published by the Guardian.

Months ago, Joe Biden’s campaign declared South Carolina its firewall, believing that the large contingent of moderates and black voters there would deliver the former vice president’s first primary win. And despite fears in recent weeks that his support in the state was weakening, the firewall did more than hold up – it has helped Biden catch fire.

Biden’s lopsided victory in South Carolina’s primary was largely the product of the overwhelming support he received from black voters. According to exit polls, he won 61% of the black vote, and no other candidate was even close – Bernie Sanders and billionaire businessman Tom Steyer finished with 17% and 13%. And with black voters constituting over half of the electorate, Biden leaves the state with a 30-point win and restored status as frontrunner after a disappointing start to the election cycle.

But it would be wrong to assume after South Carolina that black America has spoken. Unlike in previous presidential primaries, black voters nationally are unlikely to coalesce behind a single candidate this early. And given the range of ideological positions among the Democratic field of candidates – from Sanders and Elizabeth Warren further to the left and Michael Bloomberg filling the centrist lane – the political diversity within the black electorate will find expression in ways often muted in years with presumptive nominees.

As with other groups of voters, there are ideological and generational differences that lead to different electoral choices. Nearly 70% of black Democrats identify as either moderate or conservative while 29% identify as liberal. And younger voters tend to be more progressive than older ones, a characteristic that’s especially pronounced among black Americans. This political diversity would seem to suggest that different candidates appeal to different black voters. One look at South Carolina’s primary results, however, show that Biden won black voters of every ideological stripe, in every age grouping over 30, and matched Sanders with under 30 black voters in a near-statistical tie.

Outside of South Carolina, though, this likely will not be the case. Not only are ideological categorizations different in black America – that is, liberalism and conservatism are conceived of and acted on in ways distinct from white Americans – they also have a regional character. In other words, black progressives in the deep south are unlikely to hold the same views and make the same electoral choices as those in California.

These sorts of regional differences will be on full display as the Democratic primaries continue, beginning with the 14 states holding elections on Super Tuesday. As such, the presumption that black voters in every state will behave in the same way as those in South Carolina is terribly inaccurate. Polling provides some evidence of this.

For example, a February poll shows Sanders and Warren winning over 50% of the black vote in California while Biden only manages 10%. In Illinois, Biden holds a narrow lead over Sanders, but in Virginia his lead is nearly 20 points over both Bloomberg and Sanders. The point is often made that the black vote is not monolithic, but it is also not uniformly diverse – 70% of black voters in every state and city are not moderate and conservative and don’t even view those words the same. What these polls demonstrate is that in a competitive Democratic primary with a number of viable and ideologically distinct candidates, there is a regional flavor to black voters’ political choices.

recent study from center-left think tank Third Way and the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies show just how distinct black Americans are in different regions. Using focus groups, interviews, and surveys of more than a thousand black Americans across the country, the findings show that there is a mostly unified black America on some issues, such as the state of race relations and the pervasiveness of racial inequality across a range of socioeconomic factors. But there is far less national consensus on the best means to address that inequality, the accessibility of opportunity and economic mobility, the role of religion, and views of politics and the likelihood of achieving desirable political outcomes.

Whereas black Americans in the south were more likely to place faith in the traditional conservative principle that espouses a puritanical work ethic to overcome unfairness, those in the West believed that hard work wasn’t enough and progressive issue-specific appeals were more central than religion and morality to their political orientation. Similarly, those living in the East and Midwest see economic opportunity, gentrification, and tax rates differently.

The impact of these differences on black voters isn’t new. In 1992, black voters in New York were much less enthusiastic about Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign than those in the south. In 2004, black voters in South Carolina chose Senator John Edwards over the eventual nominee John Kerry. And in 2016, Hillary Clinton fared 20 points worse with black voters in the midwest than elsewhere. While the vast majority of black voters backed the Kerry and both Clintons, a similar scenario developing in 2020 seems increasingly unlikely.

With his South Carolina win, Biden now has received the most popular votes in the primaries and is just a few delegates short of the lead. A full 40% of the primary delegates are up for grabs on Super Tuesday, but Biden will not be able to rely on black voters in all of the states to be his firewall. But he will be counting on black voters in the southern states – perhaps Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and maybe Virginia – to keep him close.

Black voters outside the south, however, will remind an absentminded nation that black voters in no one state speak for the group as a whole. And while pundits have been able to get away with simplistic analysis in years past, this year looks to finally spotlight black America’s political diversity.