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Don’t Fall for the Mythic ‘Black Voter’ Analysis After South Carolina

Regardless of who wins South Carolina’s Democratic primary, Black American politics are just as varied as any other group’s and have a distinct regional flavor, no matter what the pundits say.

February 28, 2020
black voter
Mark Makela/Getty

This Saturday, all eyes will be on the Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial primary in South Caro­lina to see if former Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s strong but waning support among Black Amer­ic­ans can break Sen. Bernie Sander­s’s momentum. The state will be the first where white voters do not comprise the major­ity of those cast­ing ballots in the Demo­cratic race — in 2016, Black voters there were 61 percent of the elect­or­ate. For this reason, South Caro­lina is widely considered to be the first look at which candid­ate Black Amer­ic­ans prefer.

And despite the repeated disclaim­ers that “Black Amer­ica is not a mono­lith,” that myth is sure to be perpetu­ated once the results are in — whoever gets the most support from Black voters in South Caro­lina will be discussed as an entire racial group’s candid­ate of choice.

But this think­ing ignores the real­ity that not only are Black Amer­ican polit­ics as varied as that of every other group in the coun­try, they also have regional char­ac­ter. As such, it is uniquely true in 2020 that Black voters in South Caro­lina may not tell us much about who Black voters in the Heart­land, North­east, or West will cast their ballots for. And given the staggered state elec­tions, regional differ­ences may play an outsize role in the Demo­cratic primar­ies’ pace and outcome.

Pundits could be forgiven this elec­tion cycle for taking South Caro­lina as a stand-in for Black voters nation­ally. After all, for more than three decades, the Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ate that won the Black vote in any one state with a size­able popu­la­tion also won the Black vote in every such state. 

And not only did those candid­ates win the Black vote over­all, they routinely won by wide margins, often in excess of 60 points. The one excep­tion was in 2004 when Sen. John Edwards eked out a victory with Black voters in South Caro­lina over even­tual nominee Sen. John Kerry by three points. He then lost the Black vote in every follow­ing state to Kerry by an aver­age of 50 points.

If such history were to carry forward to this year, the winner of the Black vote in South Caro­lina would be likely to win the Black vote in every state by substan­tial margins. But in 2020, lopsided vote totals are unlikely to occur. Due to the number of viable candid­ates, the polit­ical diversity within Black Amer­ica, and the lack of a consensus on any one candid­ate’s elect­ab­il­ity, we are likely to see the Black vote split in ways not seen since the modern primary system was insti­tuted nearly five decades ago. And now, more than any other year, the split may be geograph­ical.

new study from the think tanks Third Way and the Joint Center for Polit­ical and Economic Stud­ies reveals Black Amer­ica’s vary­ing polit­ics by region and provides clues as to how they may play out in this primary. It confirms much of what polit­ical scient­ists have long known: shared exper­i­ences of racial discrim­in­a­tion cause Black Amer­ic­ans to see many issues simil­arly. The level of polit­ical engage­ment, opin­ions of Pres­id­ent Trump and the polit­ical parties, and views of the state of race rela­tions are consist­ent across the coun­try. Nation­ally, Black Amer­ic­ans are also more likely to believe govern­ment is almost always waste­ful and inef­fi­cient, a view­point that helps explain the polit­ical prag­mat­ism for which the bloc is well-known and its declin­ing support for large govern­ment programs.

But when disag­greg­ated by region, notable differ­ences appear. 

For example, when Black Amer­ic­ans were asked if they believed most people can get ahead with a strong work ethic or if hard work and determ­in­a­tion were no guar­an­tee of success, those in the Deep South were more likely to subscribe to the suffi­ciency of hard work while the major­ity of those in the West felt it’s not enough. In fact, the West was the only region that felt this way, and it was by a substan­tial margin.

More Black Midwest­ern­ers feel that economic condi­tions in their communit­ies today are worse than two decades ago, but they are also the most likely to believe the chil­dren in their neigh­bor­hood will have more oppor­tun­ity than their parents. Conversely, Black Amer­ic­ans in the East and West were more pess­im­istic, think­ing their chil­dren would have less oppor­tun­ity.

Redu­cing taxes on the work­ing and middle classes become more import­ant to Black voters the further east they live. A candid­ate’s stance on the issues becomes more import­ant than shared iden­tity and back­ground the further west they live.

What could find­ings like this mean elect­or­ally? 

It could suggest candid­ates running on trans­form­a­tional policy agen­das — like Sanders and Sen. Eliza­beth Warren — may have a more welcome audi­ence with Black voters in the West. Mean­while, moder­ate candid­ates like Biden and perhaps billion­aires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer would have more trac­tion with Black voters in the South and Midw­est. 

Some of the state polling seems to back this up: accord­ing to a Center for Public Opin­ion poll in Cali­for­nia, Sanders holds a 40–20 edge over Biden for the Black vote, Bloomberg and Steyer perform best among Black voters in states like the Caro­li­nas, and Biden wins the Black vote through­out much of the South, East, and Midw­est.

More tactic­ally, Super Tues­day occurs three days after the South Caro­lina primary and states from Massachu­setts to Cali­for­nia will be hold­ing elec­tions. It is not entirely out of the ques­tion to see Biden win the Black vote comfort­ably in Alabama and Arkan­sas, Sanders compete for the top spot in Cali­for­nia, and Bloomberg finish a close second with Black North Carolini­ans. And due to the require­ment that candid­ates must receive 15 percent of the vote statewide and in congres­sional districts to receive deleg­ates, areas of high Black concen­tra­tion will dictate final deleg­ate counts.

What the study suggests is that the regional differ­ences in Black Amer­ica are not differ­ences in kind, but in degree. Concerns are shared nation­ally, but import­ance and prior­ity change by region. So we can expect to see about 90 percent of Black voters back the Demo­cratic nominee in the general elec­tion against Donald Trump, but we can also expect that a consensus candid­ate will not emerge for Black voters as long as the field remains large, compet­it­ive, and spread out ideo­lo­gic­ally.

The choices Black voters make this week in South Caro­lina will be import­ant. It will modify the narrat­ives of campaigns’ prospects, abil­ity to fundraise, and percep­tions of momentum and viab­il­ity. But it should not be viewed as a short­cut study guide to Black voters nation­ally.