2016 Democrats

Black Voters Matter

September 2, 2015

When people talk about ethnic voting blocks these days, the conversation normally turns to Latino voters and whether The Great Wall of Trump and attempts at restricting birthright citizenship will lead to Republican electoral suicide.

Fun topic and all, but that one will stick around long enough for us to get back to it next week or next month or next year.

Instead, I want to focus on the Democratic nomination likely being decided by African-American voters.  Given the loyalty shown to Democrats over the past few decades (even John Kerry got over 90%) it seems logical for black voters to play an important role in picking a nominee, but that isn’t always the case.

For a group that constitutes up to 25% of the primary vote and can swing general elections based on turnout, you would think African-Americans would be a constant focus, catered to by Democrats the way the GOP often does to Evangelicals.

It doesn’t happen regularly for a few reasons.  First, the campaign begins in Iowa and New Hampshire, two very pale places.  If candidates don’t concentrate there first, they may not last long enough to appeal to anyone else.

Second, over the past few decades, redistricting has created many majority minority districts.  These districts vote overwhelmingly Democratic, so they are sometimes ignored in midterm elections as the Party pushes resources into swing districts and closer contests.  With Republicans also ignoring these voters, there is no debate.

Third, Democrats often pay way more attention to Latino voters.  While the GOP struggles with Hispanic voters too, in some elections, up to 40% vote Republican.  Even in worst case scenarios, Republicans manage 20-25%, so the energy goes there.

While there’s no chance Democratic candidates will forget Latino voters anytime soon, the path to the 2016 nomination goes through the African-American community.  Here’s why:

As of now, there are 3 contenders for the nomination.  Hillary Clinton is still well in the lead, followed by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden until such point that it’s too late for him to enter or he states conclusively he won’t run.  Until then, we’re acting as though he exists as an option.

Many have commented on how poorly Bernie is currently running with black voters, in some cases picking up less than 10% in national polls.  He’s not doing particularly well with Latino voters either.

This is how he’s ahead in lily-white New Hampshire and behind nationwide.  If Bernie doesn’t do better with African-Americans, the math doesn’t work.  All true.  However, there is a corollary.  Hillary needs a huge percentage of black voters to win.  She’s losing among white voters and can’t make it up among Latino voters alone.

Let’s do some math.  Approximately half of Democratic primary voters are white.  The remainder are split fairly evenly between Hispanics and African-Americans, with Asians representing a sliver too (less than 10%).

Unlike the GOP which begins awarding delegates on a winner-take-all basis once the primary season gets a couple months down the road, the Democrats are pretty strictly proportional.

In a 3-person race, this is a big deal as it makes it much more difficult to secure a majority of delegates.  When John Edwards went away quickly in 2008, Barack Obama was able to outlast Hillary and get a majority.  Had he lingered, being able to get 20-25% on average, the contest would have gone to the convention.

Bernie has a clear advantage with what was once called the wine track of Democratic voters.  These voters are more educated and live in cold places and/or upscale places.  Tastes have changed since these voters (or their parents) were voting for Gary Hart or Bill Bradley, so we’ll rename this the craft beer track.

Then there’s the traditional beer track (or BudMiller track now) of blue-collar, union supporting, old school Democrats.  This group is smaller than when Walter Mondale bested Hart.  Some are Republicans now, some are Trumpists, some are deceased.

In 2008, this group supported Hillary, but Obama won by combining wine track voters with a good amount of African-Americans and some Hispanics.  Keep in mind, Obama did not monopolize the black vote, he just got a majority.  Prior to his win in Iowa, Clinton was actually ahead among black voters in early polling.

It may seem insane to compare Sanders to Obama, but polling at this time 8 years ago showed Hillary about where she is now, Bernie where Obama was and Biden where Edwards was, with all other candidates getting little traction.

If Biden enters, he knows he will need a good amount of the black vote to compete.  His boss is still popular in the African-American community, with high levels of polling support.  Biden will also make a big push with BudMiller track voters.  It appears as if he may win the endorsement of the AFL-CIO not long after he joins the race.

The four main voting blocks are Craft Beer, BudMiller, Hispanic and African-American.  They aren’t exactly equal in size (as mentioned above), but close enough.  If a candidate can win a solid plurality with two of the four, without getting obliterated in the other two, they can win the nomination.

Normally we would talk about the nomination in terms of regions, states, primary dates, etc., but proportional delegates make this obsolete as it was in the 2008 scramble.

Sanders has the clear Craft Beer edge, Biden is the likely BudMiller favorite.  Hillary should do best with Hispanics unless she completely implodes.  In order to guarantee the nomination, she needs to win African-Americans too.

Biden will compete for these votes, and there’s always the chance of a presidential endorsement.  Sanders knows damn well he cannot win without at least 20% black support in a 3-candidate scramble, 35-40% in a head-to-head match.

The conventional wisdom is that Craft Beer candidates can’t win black voters.  Hart and Bradley didn’t, Sanders isn’t yet, so they think it isn’t possible or likely.  There isn’t any great amount of evidence.  Hart ran against Jesse Jackson, which definitely impeded his effort.  Bradley ran against a sitting VP who had spent two terms with Bill Clinton.

Neither Hart nor Bradley were positioned as well as Bernie is now.  They had to worry about getting their wine track voters on board.  Sanders has time to really focus on African-Americans.  With a lengthy record as a civil rights activist going back to the days of the Movement, it’s way too early to count him out.

With Hillary needing to protect her flank and Biden not having any path to the nomination without plenty of black friends, supporters and voters, expect never-before seen attention.

Looking at the contest this way shows Hillary a bit more vulnerable than commonly believed.  In addition to whatever may happen with her emails and server, 2008 shows black voters committed to her early do not necessarily stick.  Absent more visible support from the president, Hillary is likely to give some of this advantage back.

Head-to-head with Bernie, she’s still a definite favorite.  Throw Joe in and it looks very messy.  Especially if he chooses to go, pay less attention to the top line numbers and more to the pollster-provided sample breakouts.  Happy digging.

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