This perception about how African Americans vote exists for good reason: In presidential general elections, Democrats typically win roughly 90 percent to 95 percent of the black vote. In the 2018 midterms, exit polls showed Democrats beating Republicans 90 percent to 9 percent with black voters. And even in Democratic primaries, when every candidate is a Democrat and partisanship exerts no power, supermajorities of African American voters tend to consolidate behind one candidate and push him or her to victory.
But it’s not as though African American voters are uniquely able to discern electability, or as though they plan to vote together in a far more coherent way than members of any other demographic group. As Dr. Ted R. Johnson of the Brennan Center for Justice recently pointed out to me, the Democratic primary calendar plays a role in generating consensus among African American voters. Many African Americans vote pragmatically for the candidate who can best win elections and protect economic and civil-rights gains, but they typically only get to choose from a small field of competitors who have already been winnowed and tested.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton scared off most of her rivals and was only facing Bernie Sanders by the time South Carolina voted. Clinton was a known quantity for many African American voters, and she appeared to be electable. Unsurprisingly, she ended up winning black voters by landslide margins. In 2008, Iowa and New Hampshire filtered out contenders such as Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, leaving only Barack Obama, Clinton and John Edwards to compete for black votes in South Carolina.
Obama, who had just won a surprise victory in Iowa and was the first plausible African American Democratic nominee, became the overwhelming choice for black voters. In 2004, John F. Kerry and Edwards earned momentum and the sheen of electability in Iowa and New Hampshire, and they ended up winning the vast majority of African American voters in subsequent states. In every case, African Americans had a couple of viable choices but mostly settled on one. Their differences in age, religion, region and economic class didn’t significantly disrupt the pattern of bloc voting.
This year, the primaries aren’t functioning in the same way. In South Carolina and major Super Tuesday states, African American voters will be choosing between at least half a dozen different candidates in that election, each of whom will claim to be the pragmatic choice to beat President Trump. There’s no clear electable, establishment-friendly favorite, and polls suggest that African American voters are more split than usual.
According to the most recent East Carolina University poll, older African American voters are much more likely to favor former vice president Biden than younger black voters. The same age divide appeared in a January Washington Post-Ipsos poll, in which] Biden lagged with younger African American voters and Sanders performed well with the younger cohorts.
Some of these young voters prefer Sanders’s politics. But younger black voters also have fundamentally different formative political experiences than their parents — ones that may make them more sympathetic to Sanders’s calls for a political revolution. As Tasha Philpot, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, put it, when members of Generation X were coming of age politically, civil rights era leaders were still in visible leadership positions. For younger black voters, she explained, “a lot of political awakening came as a result of the protest in Ferguson, police brutality, Black Lives Matter and even the #MeToo movement. And so they’re not as bound by the old politics of respectability.”
Region is another dividing line. Pollster Scott H. Huffmon has argued that African Americans in the South may take a more small-C “conservative” approach to politics than African Americans of other regions. Southern black Democrats are used to a political environment where they’re playing defense against a Republican majority, so they might be more inclined toward familiar figures than riskier radicals. This may partially explain why, in the Post-Ipsos poll, Southern black voters were more likely to support Biden than African Americans in the North or Midwest.
Not every demographic difference will turn into a political cleavage. University of California at San Diego professor Zoltan Hajnal told me that class differences often don’t have a strong influence on African American voting patterns, and income didn’t seem to be a strong determinant of the vote in The Post’s January survey of African American Democratic voters. There also wasn’t a huge gender gap for any candidate in The Post’s poll. And there’s no guarantee age and region will create major divisions within the African American electorate in this primary: Biden is surging in South Carolina, and a supermajority of African Americans could still line up behind him in the coming days. Maybe most importantly, once the Democratic nominee has been chosen, African American voters will almost assuredly line up behind him or her and oppose Donald Trump, as they did in 2016.
But politicians and journalists too often take the unity of the African American vote for granted. We can fall into the shorthand of bloc voting when we write about African Americans, and politicians build strategies that involve getting all or virtually none of the vote. But as with any other Americans, the black voting bloc contains multitudes. Maybe after this primary campaign, reporters and candidates will finally recognize that.
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