clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why did Bernie Sanders do better with black voters in the Midwest? We asked 4 experts.

In the first presidential election following President Barack Obama's two terms in office, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are trying to galvanize support from Obama's multicultural coalition, including black voters.

So far, Clinton has been the undisputed winner among black voters in each of the Democratic primaries. But the margins of difference between black Clinton supporters and black Sanders voters vary across the country, with Clinton outperforming Sanders by much larger margins in Southern states than Midwestern ones.

The differences seem to be regional, but is it that simple? What do these margins say about America's black electorate in 2016? I spoke with four experts to find out.

One key to Clinton’s appeal to black voters in the South? "Racial context."

As Winthrop University political science professor Scott H. Huffmon told Vox, interpretations of the national black vote can obscure the racial politics black voters navigate from state to state.

"Being a black voter in the context of South Carolina is different from being a black voter in Michigan," Huffmon said. "You have to remember [black voters] in the context of the racial dynamics of their state."

In South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, black people made up more than 50 percent of the state’s Democratic primary voters. And those are states where Clinton won by the greatest margins among black voters.

Does that mean Southern black voters like Clinton over Sanders? Perhaps. But it's not the full story.

South Carolina was the first state with a sizable black voting bloc to head the polls, revealing how black voters were leaning overall: overwhelmingly "with her" and not really "feeling the Bern." Huffmon noted, however, that the numbers aren’t just about whom black voters like. They’re also about strategic alignments with the candidate most likely to make their vote count.

Clinton's more moderate plans, coupled with her better (though not necessarily great) fluency on race issues, may seem more achievable than Sanders's liberal, class-focused plank.

"[Black voters] … understand Bernie Sanders's message," Huffmon said. "But … his message is more likely to appeal to black voters who live in one racial context than another."

Even if black voters make up a majority of Democratic voters in the South, these states also lean Republican in general.

Take South Carolina. Black Democrats face a political landscape where most of their national elected officials are Republicans: The governor, both US senators, and six of the seven representatives in Congress are Republicans.

As Huffmon pointed out, this creates conditions where black voters aren’t necessarily prioritizing "significant gains, but trying to stop continued losses or the erosion of certain abilities and past gains."

And with those kinds of considerations, familiarity matters: Clinton is a household name; Sanders isn’t. Clinton has a rapport that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have built with black voters, black elites, and black institutions over the past 30 years that Sanders lacks. These facets work to Clinton’s advantage in the South.

A generational divide might be driving the regional differences

Black and brown activists at the Trump rally in Chicago.
Black and brown activists at a Donald Trump rally in Chicago.
Chicago Tribune via Getty Images

There is a noticeable generational difference between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters: Sanders appeals to Democratic voters under 30. And University of Chicago political science professor Michael Dawson said he believes the generational divide is also apparent in the regional differences among black voters.

It's "very clear that it’s playing out along generational lines," he said. "Not just in terms of Sanders and Clinton, but we’ve seen for a long while that younger black voters do not feel the same ties to the established Democratic Party. And much like a generation ago, younger African Americans are generally more suspicious, and more skeptical, about the system than their older cousins tend to be."

To be honest, I’m one of those skeptical millennial black voters, as I’ve written in the past. And polls might suggest I’m not an outlier.

According to NBC News polls, Clinton won 92 percent of black voters age 60 and over in the Super Tuesday Democratic primaries. But that margin of victory wasn't mirrored for younger black voters: 61 percent of black voters 18 to 29 voted for Clinton.

One possible explanation for this could be turnout. But Dawson told me that another story the polls may be missing about black voters is the role of activism among younger people today.

"One way to perhaps think about the regional differences is not so much a South/North or South/non-South difference, but where have young activists been most organized?" Dawson said. "And generally we’ve seen young activists most organized either in the border states — I’m thinking primarily of Maryland/Baltimore, and Missouri/Ferguson, and the St. Louis area more generally — and outside of the Deep South."

Based on his observations in Chicago, Dawson also noted that Sanders has benefited from the organizing efforts of the local young black and brown progressive movement built by organizations like Black Lives Matter Chicago, BYP 100, Assata's Daughters, and We Charge Genocide, even if they do not directly associate themselves with Sanders's campaign.

The recent Trump rally protest is one example. While there were Sanders supporters present, local activists — led by black, queer women — coordinated the Trump protest alongside organizing efforts against Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who was ousted during the Wednesday primary.

"It’s a combination of the issues playing out somewhat differently in the Rust Belt," Dawson said, "as well as some networks of activists aligning themselves [but] not necessarily actively campaigning on behalf of Sanders."

Ideology doesn’t necessarily map onto regional differences for black voters

Even though our overall national partisan politics play out geographically today, Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie pointed out that this kind of staunch realignment doesn’t work when considering black voters.

"For most African-American voters, and, we should also argue, Latino voters, there are people who will identify as being ideologically moderate or conservative who still identify as being Democrat because they still are concerned with issues of race," Gillespie said. "And which party is going to be better on race?"

Democrats generally benefit from the "electoral capture" of African-American voters: Republicans are typically not focused on winning over black voters. Meanwhile, Democrats can depend on their vote while also distancing themselves to appeal to middle-class white voters.

But electoral capture doesn't convey how black voters align their vote with candidates based on where they land on the progressive, liberal spectrum.

"One thing I think pundits are missing in general is that black voters have been very pragmatic in general and very sophisticated in presidential elections," Dawson said. "What I mean by African Americans are pragmatic is that African Americans, in comparison to the rest of the American population, have a fairly good grasp of the issues, often better than mainstream Americans do. But because the stakes have been so high, African Americans have often used the decision rule of lesser of two evils."

Again, this is why familiarity is important and why, as Gillespie pointed out, Sanders's limited outreach to Southern black voters came at a price.

"From a strategic standpoint, it made perfect sense for [Sanders] to go north and to go west, because he wasn't going to win," Gillespie said.

"But if you're trying to win black voters, that probably wasn't the right move at that particular time. So from a strategic standpoint, I understand the divisions. But there are costs. There was a consequence to that decision that people who were skeptical were not going to be won over by the bank."

Black voters aren't monolithic, but we need to collect data to show that

A black voter casting their ballot on Super Tuesday in Virginia.
A black voter casting a ballot on Super Tuesday in Virginia.
Paul J. Richards via Getty Images

One of the roadblocks of trying to extrapolate what is going on with black voters is that national polls don't necessarily provide much nuance for black voters on their own terms.

And as Indiana University political science professor Bernard L. Fraga told me, this has a lot to do with the dearth of detailed data.

"I think that pundits, but also data journalists, are treating the black electorate as a monolith," Fraga said in an email. "Some of this is due to data difficulties, as exit polling of African Americans is often not conducted with enough precision to allow for detailed subgroup analysis."

Exit polls consider race, but there are limits. Some polls will include race in terms of white voters and nonwhite voters, which, based on categorization, minimizes the nuances for how different communities of color are voting.

Available data around race and gender is useful considering the fact that black women vote at a higher frequency than black men, and that black women voted at a higher rate than any other group in the 2012 presidential election, which helped carry Obama's reelection.

But these are tiny snapshots of a much more complex story. And, unfortunately, that story is difficult to tell when polls don't adequately quantify the dynamics at play within the electorate of specific communities like black voters.

"Discussions of differences by region is one step in the right direction," Fraga said. "But my sense is that we need to do the same kind of thorough analysis of black voters that every analyst is willing to do for white voters."

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.