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New poll shows black voters want 2020 candidates with big policy plans, not just big names

A new survey from BlackPAC finds that black voters want the country to get “back on track” — and see specific plans to address racism as the way to do it.

An audience listens to Joe Biden during a South Carolina campaign event on May 4, 2019.
An audience listens to Joe Biden during a South Carolina campaign event on May 4, 2019.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Black voters are expected to play a key role in the 2020 Democratic primary, and in a large primary field, reaching these voters will be important to any campaign that wants to stay competitive. A new poll shows exactly what black voters want and what candidates will need to do to reach them.

A poll released this week by BlackPAC, an organization that does election polling and has led black voter engagement efforts in recent elections in Virginia and Alabama, finds that more than halfway into the Trump presidency, black voters are looking to push the country “back on track.” For registered black voters, this means supporting candidates that will address racism and discrimination, as well as produce tangible improvements in areas like health care, the economy, and police accountability.

BlackPAC’s findings also note that the two candidates with the most name recognition among black voters — former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders — also enjoy the highest favorability and greatest support among those polled. But BlackPAC cautions that these standings could change as candidates release policy plans and discuss how they plan to help black communities.

“Name identification, which is driving support for candidates at this point, will be insufficient for decisively winning the Black electorate — and subsequently, securing the nomination,” Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, said in a statement. “Candidates must use this critical window to define their campaigns around these concerns.”

Black voters are especially concerned about racism and discrimination — and are looking for candidates with real plans to address those issues

BlackPAC surveyed 613 black registered voters, asking them to respond to online questions about the issues they are concerned about, their opinions of specific candidates, and how closely they are following the 2020 Democratic primary so far.

The survey found that black voters are paying close attention to politics in general and the 2020 race specifically, with 84 percent of respondents saying that they are following politics and the upcoming election; 92 percent of respondents also said that they were likely going to vote in the 2020 presidential election.

Among the BlackPAC survey respondents, the most likely voters in the survey were black voters in the 40-55 age range (94 percent of whom said they would vote) and the 56-64 age range (95 of whom said they would vote).

Here are some of the other key findings of the survey into black voters and the 2020 election, according to a memo released by BlackPAC on Tuesday:

One of the top issues for black voters, who responded with concern and alarm about the direction of the country under Donald Trump, is racism and discrimination.

Name recognition is currently driving favorable opinions for Democratic presidential candidates.

Black voters [are] on high alert, and are paying close attention to political developments.

Of these three points, perhaps the most significant finding is that black voters are particularly concerned about racism and discrimination and are looking for candidates who can speak to these issues. 50 percent of respondents in the BlackPAC survey identified racism as their main concern in the 2020 election, a finding which tracks with previous polls from BlackPAC.

Other top issues identified by black voters in the survey include police accountability, health care, jobs and the economy, and education. The poll also found that black voters are concerned about issues like voting rights, criminal justice reform, and gun control, but fewer voters have these as top priorities.

Black voters say racism and discrimination is their greatest concern in the months leading up to the 2020 election.
Black voters say racism and discrimination is their greatest concern in the months leading up to the 2020 election.

Many of these issues have already seen some attention in the democratic primary. But additional aspects of the poll suggest that black voters are looking for more than a broad based discussion of these topics; rather, they want candidates to specifically outline how their plans to tackle these issues will benefit black communities.

“In order to win the Democratic presidential nomination, candidates must demonstrate to Black voters — through policy solutions and moral conviction — an unyielding commitment to halting the rise of bigotry and curbing widening racial disparities in our economic, healthcare, and education systems,” Shropshire said in a statement.

Black voters are a key constituency that all candidates should be trying to persuade

At this (admittedly very early) stage in the 2020 democratic primary, some candidates have already sought to address issues important to black voters, including reparations, black maternal mortality, voting rights, and closing the racial wealth gap.

And while these discussions matter, the BlackPAC poll suggests that candidates will need to continue to discuss these issues, and in some cases dig even deeper, if they want the support of black voters.

Take the BlackPAC poll’s findings on candidate favorability: The poll found that candidates with the highest name recognition also have the largest favorability rating and most support. This finding tracks with other early polls of black voters, which have consistently shown Joe Biden leading the 2020 field (largely due to major support from older black voters), followed by Bernie Sanders — while far less known candidates like Pete Buttigieg trail far behind.

But the BlackPAC poll also finds that “only 3% of respondents said that the best reason to vote in 2020 is a candidate that they believe in.” This finding is worth looking into more, but it’s a telling indication that black voters this cycle may not be looking for a candidate who is the most inspirational or that they see as likeable, but are rather looking to other factors, like who they see as the most “electable” or who discusses policy issues they care about the best.

Still, the poll suggests that the coming months present an opportunity for all of the candidates to connect with black voters, which are far from a monolithic group. The poll specifically cites Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, all of whom round out the top five candidates in the poll, as candidates with increasing support from voters closely following the news.

Black respondents to the BlackPAC survey largely support and favor Joe Biden—but that might change.
Black respondents to the BlackPAC survey largely support and favor Joe Biden—but that might change.

What black voters want has been consistent in recent elections — but candidates haven’t always addressed those concerns

As noted, many of the findings of the new BlackPAC poll track with earlier polls the group has conducted of black voters. For example, a 2018 poll conducted before the midterm elections in several battleground states found that black voters were dealing with high levels of racial anxiety, were worried about racism and discrimination, and strongly disapproved of President Trump.

The latest poll suggests that the majority of these issues have not changed. But with the 2020 election coming up, the question now is whether political candidates are aware of this and are willing to speak to the issues highlighted by black voters.

The poll shows that perhaps the best way to engage these voters is to address the issues most pressing to them, which means not just speaking about racism and white supremacy, but also having proposals to address very real racial disparities in economic access, education, and health care.

This will be especially important in mobilizing groups of younger black voters, whom the BlackPAC poll finds are less likely to identify as staunch Democrats. Black pollsters see them as swing voters that must be persuaded to support a candidate.

While almost all of its survey is focused on the election, BlackPAC also notes that black civic engagement in 2020 isn’t just about voting; it includes participation in the 2020 Census, for example. The poll finds that young black voters and black immigrants in particular are less engaged on this kind of civic participation.

For many black voters, 2020 is more than an election, it’s an opportunity to increase black political power and influence. The Democratic candidates who recognize this, BlackPAC’s poll suggests, stand the best chance of making big gains among black voters in the future.

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