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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.