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Five Myths About Black Voters

Black voters are not uniformly liberal, writes Brennan Center fellow Theodore R. Johnson.

December 19, 2019
The Washington Post/Getty

This was origin­ally published by the Wash­ing­ton Post.

For the past 30 years, the Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ate who received the most primary support from black voters won the party’s nomin­a­tion. All but one — John F. Kerry in 2004 — won the popu­lar vote in the general elec­tion. But devel­op­ments in the current Demo­cratic contest, includ­ing former vice pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s contin­ued popular­ity among black voters and Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s depar­ture, show that the black elect­or­ate remains widely misun­der­stood. Here are five myths about the voting bloc that may be espe­cially relev­ant for the 2020 elec­tion.

Myth No. 1

Black voters are liberal.

One of the defin­ing phenom­ena of contem­por­ary Amer­ican elect­oral polit­ics is the black elect­or­ate’s large and endur­ing support for the Demo­cratic Party, which has concur­rently moved left­ward: Its pres­id­en­tial candid­ates have received an aver­age of nearly 90 percent of the black vote for the past six decades. Many conclude that black voters’ liberal pref­er­ences, carried over from economic and racially progress­ive policies of the civil rights move­ment and Jesse Jack­son’s pres­id­en­tial campaigns of 1984 and 1988, led this shift. MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid wrote that Jack­son’s radical liber­al­ism helped pave the way for Bernie Sander­s’s rise.  And the Black Lives Matter move­ment tried to push Hillary Clin­ton left, chan­ging liberal polit­ics in the process. As a result, senior polit­ics writer David Catanese held in U.S. News & World Report, “the most liberal list of policy posi­tions” would be Sander­s’s “best gambit to win over African Amer­ic­ans.” And Noah Mill­man made the case in the Week that Sen. Eliza­beth Warren’s liberal economic popu­lism may be the key to winning black voters.

But black voters’ support of Demo­cratic candid­ates is a func­tion of elect­oral prag­mat­ism — voting in a risk-averse fash­ion to preserve gains, instead of ideo­lo­gic­ally in hopes of imme­di­ate trans­form­at­ive change — not devo­tion to left-wing ideo­logy. In surveys, more than half of black Demo­crats and Demo­cratic-lean­ing inde­pend­ents prefer a public option for health care over Medi­care-for-all, and two-thirds of black Amer­ic­ans favor charter schools and choice programs, which stray from party ortho­doxy.

Only 28 percent of black Demo­crats consider them­selves liberal, accord­ing to the Pew Research Center, while 70 percent identify as moder­ate or conser­vat­ive. And black liberal Demo­crats consti­tute just 17 percent of the left wing of the party, Gallup found. Black voters’ polit­ical diversity is more visible in local and state polit­ics: A 2007 study of direct-demo­cracy refer­en­dums in Cali­for­nia found that black voters were split between the conser­vat­ive and liberal posi­tions, for example. And Repub­lic­ans have succeeded in appeal­ing to moder­ate and conser­vat­ive black voters in state races, as Mary­land Gov. Larry Hogan did in his 2018 reelec­tion campaign, when he won more than a quarter of the bloc.

Myth No. 2

Black candid­ates matter most to black voters.

When black candid­ates run for office, observ­ers assume that they can rely on group solid­ar­ity. The Los Angeles Times noted that Harris and Sen. Cory Booker were “bank­ing on racial pride” to win black voters. When former Massachu­setts governor Deval Patrick entered the primary race last month, Bloomberg News repor­ted, “As an African Amer­ican, Patrick could dimin­ish Biden’s strength with black voters.”

It’s certainly true that black voters support black Demo­cratic candid­ates at higher rates, often in terms of both turnout and vote share. But analysis of past elec­tions and campaigns shows that black voters have never prior­it­ized simple descript­ive repres­ent­a­tion over other factors, like party affil­i­ation, campaign viab­il­ity, candid­ate elect­ab­il­ity, preex­ist­ing rela­tion­ships with the black community and a sense of authen­ti­city. Sen. Barack Obama had to prove his viab­il­ity by winning white Demo­crats in Iowa before his black support mater­i­al­ized, a hurdle that many black candid­ates, from Shir­ley Chisholm and Al Sharpton to Booker and Harris, have not managed to clear. As several black voters recently told the New York Times: “Repres­ent­a­tion is not enough.” 

Myth No. 3

Trump can win black voters in signi­fic­ant numbers.

While campaign­ing in Michigan in 2016, Donald Trump claimed, “At the end of four years, I guar­an­tee you that I will get over 95 percent of the African Amer­ican vote.” That asser­tion is clearly outland­ish. But it has long been a Repub­lican axiom that winning 1 in 5 black voters is the magic number for party domin­ance. Trump and the GOP point to low black unem­ploy­ment and federal prison reform as winning messages.

Yet Trump will be fortu­nate to get to half of that 20 percent threshold in 2020. The 8 percent of black voters he won in 2016 was certainly more than John McCain and Mitt Romney received in 2008 and 2012 while facing Obama’s historic candid­acy. Still, between 1968 and 2004, Repub­lican pres­id­en­tial nomin­ees aver­aged nearly 12 percent of the black vote, and Trump under­per­formed each one. Mean­while, Gallup reports that just 10 percent of black Amer­ic­ans approve of the job Trump is doing, and more than 3 in 4 have an unfa­vor­able view of him, accord­ing to a recent Econom­ist/YouGov poll. The party’s relat­ive silence after the pres­id­ent’s comments about black coun­tries, major­ity-black cities like Baltimore, and black athletes and women appears set to play a larger role in black voters’ choices than specific policy propos­als.

Demo­crats lose elec­tions because of black voters’ apathy.

In 2016, a seven-point drop in black voter turnout was perceived to have cost Clin­ton the elec­tion. Polit­ical comment­at­ors often cite black voters’ “enthu­si­asm gap” as the primary reason for low turnout. After last month’s elec­tions, an NBC head­line claimed, “Demo­cratic wins come with a warn­ing sign: Low African Amer­ican voter turnout,” suggest­ing that unless black voters are ener­gized, Demo­crats cannot prevail.

But the 7 million to 9 million voters, mostly white, who backed Trump after support­ing Obama four years earlier played a larger role in Clin­ton’s loss than lower black turnout. And state voter-suppres­sion meas­ures — from ID laws to longer lines — had become more preval­ent, target­ing black Amer­ic­ans “with almost surgical preci­sion,” accord­ing to a federal court. Subpar outreach and mobil­iz­a­tion efforts, coupled with voter suppres­sion, hurt Demo­crats more than an unin­ter­ested black elect­or­ate. 

Finally, higher black turnout does not equate to Demo­cratic wins: Though it increased in 1984, 2000 and 2004, Repub­lican nomin­ees won the White House.

Myth No. 5

Black voters won’t vote for gay candid­ates.

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Butti­gieg’s support among black voters has been dismal: at 2 percent nation­ally in the Econom­ist/YouGov poll and at less than 1 percent in South Caro­lina, where black voters are nearly two-thirds of the primary elect­or­ate. A much-publi­cized rationale for this lack of support, largely based on an internal campaign memo, is that black voters can’t get past the fact that Butti­gieg is openly gay. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) remarked that “there’s no ques­tion” Butti­gieg’s sexu­al­ity is a prob­lem for older black voters. These senti­ments are groun­ded in the social conser­vat­ism and strong reli­gi­os­ity often found in parts of black Amer­ica, demon­strated most publicly during state refer­en­dums and lawmak­ing on same-sex marriage between 2000 and 2015. For example, black parish­ion­ers in North Caro­lina helped pass a 2012 meas­ure to define marriage as between a man and woman, and mobil­ized in Mary­land against a 2012 stat­ute legal­iz­ing same-sex marriage.

But Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who is black and gay,  won thanks to black voters — despite the open acknow­ledg­ment that if she’d kissed her part­ner in a black church, she’d be asked to leave.  Social conser­vat­ism does not have a large effect on black Amer­ic­ans’ voting beha­vior, accord­ing to research published in Social Science Quarterly. In fact, black voters view Butti­gieg about as favor­ably as white and Hispanic voters do, and fewer black voters view him unfa­vor­ably, accord­ing to the Econom­ist/YouGov poll. A range of issues impairs his abil­ity to win black support (includ­ing lack of endorse­ments from prom­in­ent black offi­cials): Homo­pho­bia prob­ably isn’t one of them.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.