The immediate wake of Super Tuesday went more or less as predicted: some jubilation, some anger, and a lot of punditry on overdrive as those invested in the Democratic presidential nomination collectively recalibrated where the race now stands.
Southern states turned out for former Vice President Joe Biden, pushing him to the front of the race, while Bernie Sanders won delegate-rich California. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg exited the race Wednesday morning, with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren following Thursday.
Our current state of ubiquitous political punditry favors declarations and exclamations, but what the most reliable voices will tell you is that a lot can still change between now and the next round of primaries. The once-packed, once-diverse race has essentially whittled down to two candidates and two narratives—the progressive promise of Sanders vs the “electability” concerns bolstering Biden. But as the nomination process lurches forward (as does the possibility of a contested convention), bigger questions about the future of the party are also coming to the fore.
It’s an oft-repeated (but not often internalized) mantra: black voters are not a monolith. Yet so much of political media and political writing flattens the black vote, in part because viable choices for African Americans have historically been so limited. Which is what makes the fissures we see in 2020 both striking and worth exploring. It’s important to view these nuances in the black electorate not strictly for what they reveal about whiteness, but what they reveal about black people’s priorities and vision for their country. If we are going to achieve any type of clarity about the future of the Democrats—a party that is expected to marry the interests (and money) of Wall Street and big pharmaceutical companies with the concerns (and energy) of anti-establishment activists—we need to probe these divisions, and be honest about what they tell us.
Stark differences in political values and approaches among the black electorate have been evident—and reported on—for months. One of the most visible stories ran in the New York Times in Sept. 2019, in which young black voters, many of whom would be voting in their first presidential election, spoke about the progressive/moderate divide in their households. Some were trying to convince their parents and grandparents to support more progressive candidates, like Sanders and Warren, in the Democratic primary contest.
This division has persisted as the race has thinned out. It was reflected in the results from the South Carolina primary, where Biden rode a wave of support from black voters over the age of 60. It was enough for him to net 61 percent of the black vote in that state—a monstrous advantage over the rest of the Democratic field.
But there was an interesting caveat: primary voters across all races trend older, and this was the same for black South Carolinians. However, among black primary voters under 30 (a mix of millennials and Gen Z), a different favorite emerged: Sanders. According to an NBC News exit poll, the progressive Vermont senator slightly edged out Biden among those voters in the state, with 38 percent of their vote (though Biden still netted 36 percent).
Internal Sanders numbers from the primary, as reported by Mother Jones, appeared to support what recent national polling had also shown—a specific appeal to young and first-time voters.
But Super Tuesday revealed the limits of Sanders’ pledge to expand the base. The turnout from youth and disaffected voters lagged behind what many in the Sanders camp had anticipated and hoped for. This was disappointing for the Sanders campaign and the young people of color who had been advocating for him. After years of weathering criticism about his rhetorical and policy shortcomings in addressing racial inequality, Sanders prepped his 2020 platform by working with racial wealth gap scholars, taking greater care in articulating the links between his economic plans and racial equity, and expanding his bench of black surrogates. But just as in South Carolina, the results of that work were limited. While he was more competitive among black voters ages 30 to 44 in Virginia (but still 11 points behind Biden), he lagged far behind with 45 to 59-year-old black voters, as Vox recently reported.
The reason why Sanders’ progressive promises weren’t catching among older black voters? Interviews with voters point to concerns about electability, which have been widely framed as pragmatism.
Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change, put it this way to the Times back in 2019: “Black people are strategic voters, particularly older black people.
“They’re thinking harm reduction,” he said. “They’re doing a deep analysis about what they think white people will accept and won’t accept.”
Geographic breakdowns of the black electorate are also worth lingering on. One analytical piece from the Brennan Center, published after the South Carolina primary but before Super Tuesday, disaggregated data from black voters across the U.S. Its findings were eventually supported by the ballot box this past week:
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.
The specific line of thinking laid out here—of individual achievement and effort trumping systemic issues—is a fundamentally conservative school of thought. This doesn’t contradict or oppose the black South’s history of revolution and resistance, but it should deepen our understanding of who these voters are. This also reveals what makes black voters on the West coast unique among their peers.
There were other divisions, and predictions:
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.
As we all know, Sanders won in California, where he had focused a lot of energy in recent weeks (even skipping the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., attended by all the other presidential candidates, to hit up a campaign event in Los Angeles). As Politico reports, Biden still won a plurality of the black vote in that state (33 percent), but the margins were nowhere near as large as in the South.
The Brennan Center speculated that, because of the number of viable candidates and the political diversity among the black electorate, “we are likely to see the black vote split in ways not seen since the modern primary system was instituted nearly five decades ago.” This didn’t quite come to bear—Biden was a clear winner among black voters. But with the race narrowed down to two people—and two radically different visions of what the country needs—monitoring these geographic gaps among black voters will be as important to reporters covering the primaries as it will be to the Biden and Sanders campaigns.
As we move toward the next stage in the Democratic primary, the narrative of the older, pragmatic black voter has already spread across political analysts and social media. But the phrasing is loaded and speaks to a narrative that feels both hasty and incomplete.
One of the most widely distributed quotes from the South Carolina primary came from Chris Richardson, who told the Times: “Black voters know white voters better than white voters know themselves.”
“So yeah, we’ll back Biden,” he continued, “because we know who white America will vote for in the general election in a way they may not tell a pollster or the media.”
The quote fed into what Jezebel’s Ashley Reese astutely pointed out as the “deification of the older black voter”—ascribing to them the infallibility of sages, a depiction that is equally flattening as the “black people will save us” narrative.
But it’s worth noting that Richardson was just 39 years old, slightly older than the cap-off point for being labeled a millennial. By many polling standards, he would be looked at as a “younger” voter. Richardson’s view challenges the assumption that all younger voters want transformational change or feel the country is ready for it. If pegging your vote to “electability” is the standard for pragmatism, there’s evidence suggesting younger voters are no less inclined to shape their decisions this way.
It’s also necessary to state that what is pragmatic varies largely on your circumstances and lived experiences. “Beat Trump at all costs” is an immediate concern, but if you’re uninsured, drowning in student debt (a crisis that disproportionately affects black people), and fear that you will never receive a cent in Social Security, it’s no less a practical choice to want to elect a president who vows to aggressively tackle those things. If and when a recession hits, young black Americans, low on assets and overwhelmed by debt, will have a profoundly difficult time recovering.
Both Warren and Sanders won the support of black activists throughout the campaign—many of them black women—but always lagged behind when it came to “the black vote.” It would be insulting to claim these longtime activists and organizers aren’t themselves pragmatic; for them, given the choice between incremental and radical change, incremental change not only seems insufficient—it’s simply untenable.
For years, Democrats seemed to welcome the idea of being a big tent party: actively courting centrist Republicans in the suburbs while capitalizing on the energy and branding of activists on its progressive fringes. But its ability to placate and find compromise among these groups is increasingly in doubt.
A growing amount of the electorate is dissatisfied not just with the political machine, but the very structure upon which this country was founded—capitalism. We saw hints of this clash last year between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of The Squad, whose progressive politics have been at odds with members of their own party. The interests and values of a growing socialist movement—in which black people currently play and have always been a part—simply don’t line up with the core of the Democratic Party, which has shown little interest or political will in pushing forward the kind of transformational policies that will ease the racial wealth gap ( a “jobs for all” plan, or full cancellation of student debt), fix our broken education system (which requires desegregating neighborhoods), or make healthcare access more equitable (hint: not the public option).
It’s also a party that will continue to court a growing elderly population while trying to make inroads with a younger, more diverse group of voters it deems to be its future—but who have persistently voiced distrust in establishment politics. According to one 2017 NBC News poll, 71 percent of young Americans want a viable third party—including 69 percent of black Americans.
This data supports what many young and “disaffected” voters have long claimed: lack of turnout can’t be ascribed to apathy, but a lack of institutional trust and support. As one New York Daily News op-ed recently pointed out: data shows that young people are much more likely to be derailed by obstacles to voting, and that policies like same-day registration and pre-registration (as early as high school) do a lot to close the turnout gaps. But the Democratic party will have to prioritize young voters and the platforms they support in ways they previously haven’t. It’s unclear whether this will—or can—happen.
This is certainly not the first time black Americans have disagreed about the best course for the future of the country. But the rhetoric of black activism has shaped the language and policies of the Democratic platform in profound ways in the last two presidential election cycles. And as Super Tuesday showed us, black voters remain the cornerstone of the Democratic Party. With this, there’s more mainstream interest in who they are and what they care about—and a growing amount of data to shed light on these questions.
New Yorker writer and history professor Jelani Cobb wrote on Twitter, “The 2020 general election is going to be fought on the terrain of the black vote.” Up through November, black people across the country will share similar obstacles in even getting to the ballot box—longer lines in their neighborhoods, having their registrations thrown out. But as fissures in the terrain become increasingly apparent, a story we must pay attention to is how these diverse (and at times, uncompromisable) political ideologies will impact local and national politics for years to come.