Black Americans are not a unified voting bloc, and it is time to start paying attention.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Black Americans vote in lockstep with the Democratic Party, ever since they began to switch from the Grand Old Party (as the Republican Party is commonly referred to) to the Democrats during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945). Partisan realignment in the 1960s, beginning with the 1964 presidential election, marked the start of a more dramatic shift in black voting patterns in the country that endures today. Since the 1976 US presidential election, Democrats have won no less than 80 percent of all black votes. By the time of his historic 2008 victory, Barack Obama garnered an unprecedented 95 percent of the black vote. Even in non-presidential federal, state, and local contests, Black Americans continue to back Democratic candidates overwhelmingly, with 90 percent of black voters picking Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections.
Put together, one could be forgiven for going along with straightforward assumptions about black voting behavior. It is easy to see why the “black people vote 90 percent Democrat” trope might resonate, by casually looking at historical trends, surveys, and exit polls. The vast majority of black elected officials in the US are Democrats and roughly one out of every four Democratic voters is black. However, numbers may not lie, but they can mislead or deceive; flattening voting patterns and preferences into a monolithic “black vote” obscures a nuanced diversity of black political thought belied by unflinching Democratic Party loyalty.
Idealized conceptualizations of the mythical “black voter” obscure differences based on gender, geography, ideology and other factors that explain voter preference. The regional variations, in particular, are worthy of careful consideration. Nearly 60 percent of Black Americans live in the South, according to the US Census Bureau. With the region serving as a Bethlehem of sorts for Black Americans, the ethnography of black political sociology in states like Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas offers key insights into how and why Black American voters behave the way they do. After two consecutive poor results in lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire, former Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential bid was written off by many pundits. But on the back of Black South Carolinians, Biden scored a big win in the state’s Democratic primary on February 29 and three days later, raced to a 10-state romp on Super Tuesday, again largely due to Southern Black voters in states like North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Exit polls show that Biden won 84 percent of Black voters in the Mississippi primary. Barring a major implosion, Joe Biden will likely be the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee. Biden’s remarkable turnaround spurred “comeback kid” comparisons to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, confounding pundits who thought the end was near for the former veep.
For Black American voters, and Black South Carolina voters specifically, Biden always was the default. Right from the moment he declared his candidacy, Biden has consistently been the first choice for black voters across the country, in a contest that at one point featured three black candidates. For Black Americans, making early pronouncements about their preferred candidate’s chances on the back of results from two small, unrepresentative states never made much sense, given their prominence as the heartbeat of the Democratic Party. Just as crucially, “electability” as is typically described in mainstream discussion means something different to Black Americans, and Black South Carolinians were eager to demonstrate that.
No community of American voters appreciates the stakes-is-high nature of the two-party system quite like Black Americans, who have always had to navigate political participation with precarity. They are accustomed to incrementalism, making compromises and behaving pragmatically in a system that constrains their preferences and decision-making. None of this suggests that black voters don’t care about core tenets of the Democratic policy agenda—they do—but given that black voters stand to lose a lot more than white voters if a Republican takes office, they place an exceptionally high premium on backing winning Democratic candidates. For black voters, who register high levels of disapproval of President Trump, electing a Democrat to the Oval Office is the highest priority in the 2020 elections.
Particularly for Southern Black Democrats, who live in GOP-controlled states with some of the worst cases of voter suppression and gerrymandering, presidential primaries give them an opportunity not only to determine the party’s nominee, but also to have a meaningful say in the democratic process. These voters are broadly disposed to supporting candidates who excel at the relational politics of presentation—things like having primary or (strong) secondary ties to the South, fluency in Black worship conventions, engagement with (and outreach to) revered social institutions and signaling between Black political elites and the publics they represent. For Black Southerners, Democratic Party affiliation is more than the mere exercise of the constitutional freedom of peaceful assembly—it is, for some, the upholding of a hard-fought legacy that stretches back to the Great Migration and encompasses Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. In other words, the Democratic Party is their party. This is the focus of a new book by Keneshia Grant, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Howard University. In The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century, Grant writes about how the mass migration of Black Americans from the South in a period of intense competition for the presidency among the two parties drove the Democratic Party’s change on racial issues.
So far in the 2020 primaries, Biden has performed excellently among churchgoing Southern black male voters over 45. Among non-Southern black female voters under 30 however, Bernie Sanders has outpaced Biden. Gender, regional, and generational divides among black voter cohorts are real and pronounced.
That black voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic does not suppose they are liberal, either. In writing and talking about black voters, there is a tendency to impose conventional (read: white) labels on them, where ideological orientation, party identification, and party loyalty (which overlap but refer to distinct phenomena) are conflated. For example, a slight majority of Black South Carolinians lean towards the moderate-to-conservative scale, as do most Black Southern voters. Fewer than half of all black voters identify as “strong Democrats”, according to a memo published by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and Third Way. Because of the uniqueness of the Black American experience relative to other ethnic groups, black voters think of ideological self-identification much differently and labels like “liberal” and “conservative” do not cohere with party identification among black voters as they would with white voters. Put differently, white conservative voters are likely to identify as Republicans, but black conservatives are not.
The reasons for this loyalty to the Democratic Party are varied and complicated, and Ismail White and Chryl Laird seek to make sense of it all in the recently released Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior. In it, they write that Black Americans maintain well-established conventions about political participation and group solidarity, which they enforce through collective norms and institutional arrangements that serve as reinforcing mechanisms. Largely because of the enduring legacy of racial segregation, Black Americans retain social relationships mostly with other black folks, raising the cost of defection from group solidarity norms. This does not suggest that black voters in America will remain loyal to the Democrats forever, especially given transitional demographic trends in the black population in the United States, but it does suggest that the social experiences of Black Americans are bound up in their electoral choices, making Democratic Party affiliation a necessity—even as black folks navigate other non-electoral forms of political participation like other rational, self-interested political actors do.