Just How Solid Is the Black Vote for the Democrats?
Perhaps Much Less Than People Think
It has been widely noted that the Hispanic vote was relatively poor for the Democrats in 2020. But that wasn’t the Democrats’ only disappointment among nonwhite voters. Democratic margins among black voters also declined by 7 points, though not by nearly as much as among Hispanics (16 points, Catalist two party vote). Moreover, while absolute turnout for black voters was up, as it was for almost all groups in a very high turnout election, turnout did not go up as much for black voters as for other groups, so relative turnout fell.
A good example of this was Georgia. In a New York Times analysis of the 2020 Georgia vote:
Joe Biden put Georgia in the Democratic column for the first time since 1992 by making huge gains among affluent, college-educated and older voters in the suburbs around Atlanta, according to an Upshot analysis of the results by precinct. The Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest level since 2006, based on an Upshot analysis of newly published turnout data from the Georgia secretary of state. In an election marked by a big rise in turnout, Black turnout increased, too, but less than that of some other groups….
The Black share of the electorate appears to have also dropped in North Carolina — another state where voters are asked their race on their voter registration form — based on initial data from counties representing about 10 percent of the state’s electorate. And there was no evidence of a turnout surge in Detroit or Milwaukee — along with an increase in Philadelphia that was smaller than in the state as a whole — where Democrats had hoped to reverse disappointing Black turnout from four years ago.
This is a bit of a puzzle. Trump was widely and correctly viewed as a racist, a perception that was turbocharged by the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. And the Democratic party and Biden were certainly all in on BLM, so you could hardly ask for an election where the profile of the racial justice issue was any higher. And yet….the expected surge in black support and turnout for Democrats failed to appear.
One possibility is that Democrats overestimated the salience of the racial justice issue, perhaps especially as it unfolded around the BLM movement. Black voters, particularly working class voters, do after all have other concerns rooted in material, kitchen-table concerns.
Looking at exit poll data for black voters (the exit poll lets you filter on black voters; AP/NORC VoteCast does not), 39 percent of black voters considered racism in the US to be “the most important problem”. These voters favored Biden by 98-2. The other 61 percent of black voters, those who considered racism an important problem (45 percent), a minor problem (7 percent), not a problem at all (7 percent) or didn’t answer the question (2 percent) favored Biden over Trump by only about 80-18.
Along the same lines, 79 percent of black voters considered Biden the candidate better able to handle the economy and favored Biden by a whopping 99 to zero. But the other 21 percent of black voters, those who preferred Trump on the economy (17 percent) or didn’t answer the question (4 percent) actually supported Trump over Biden by about 57-43.
Supporting data come from the Voter Study Group (VSG) postelection panel survey. In this survey, the percentage of black respondents designating “racial equality” as a very important issue was very high (77 percent) but the coronavirus (79 percent) and health care (83 percent) were even higher. Other very important issues were jobs (73 percent), the economy (70 percent) and crime (66 percent).
Among black respondents saying the racial equality issue was very important, Biden received very robust 95-5 support. But among those black voters who designated racial equality as “somewhat important” (13 percent), Biden was favored over Trump by only 64-32 and among those said the issue was not very important (5 percent) Biden was preferred by just 61-39.
Other VSG data indicate overwhelming support for various policing reforms associated with the BLM movement but not for demands such as defunding the police (against by 7 points) and decreasing the size of the policy force and reducing its scope of work (split down the middle).
These data underscore the extent to which black voters are not a monolith and cannot be assumed to belong to the Democrats simply on the basis of racial justice advocacy and rhetoric. In the end, the loyalty of black voters depends crucially on the ability of the Democrats to provide material improvements in their lives, particularly for those in working class and poor communities.
This helps explain why the black shift toward Trump in 2020 wound up being heavily concentrated among black working class (noncollege) voters. A forthcoming States of Change detailed re-analysis of 2020 election data not only shows this pattern nationally but also indicates that black margin shifts toward Trump in key states from Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Florida, Georgia and Nevada were driven entirely or overwhelmingly by black working class voters.
Much recent data suggests the potential for considerable further erosion of Democratic strength among black voters. Civiqs data show Biden’s net approval (approval minus disapproval) declining considerably more among black working class voters (30 points) than among voters as a whole (21 points) in the past year. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that:
Democratic margins…eroded among Black voters, who favored a Democrat for Congress by 35 percentage points, down from 56 points in November. Support for a Republican candidate rose to 27% among Black voters, from 12% in November.
The same poll found gloomy economic assessments pervasive among nonwhite voters, including blacks, on whether high inflation was causing them major financial strain. Black women were particularly likely to report that level of strain.
Economics looms large but there are other issues. Take crime, an intensifying nationwide problem which particularly afflicts black working class and poor communities. Many in the Democratic party appear reluctant to directly attack this problem on the theory that talking tough and being tough on crime would alienate black voters and might even be racist. But this is not so; black voters want public safety as much or more than other voters and they will listen to politicians who promise to take action.
Eric Adams, the black mayor of New York City knows this. He knows that Democrats who try to soft-pedal the crime problem do not represent “normie voters”, especially working class normie voters, especially black working class normie voters. That’s why Adams has not been afraid to put public safety front and center in his political appeals and call out affluent professionals who think nonwhite and working class communities can do with less policing. He believes that this is what his constituencies want.
He’s not wrong about that, as suggested by his very strong nonwhite, especially black, working class support in the New York City mayoral primary. These sentiments are dominant in urban areas all over the country. In heavily black Detroit, a USA Today/Suffolk University//Detroit Free Press poll found:
Amid a jump in violent crime in this and other cities nationwide, Detroit residents report being much more worried about public safety than about police misconduct…By an overwhelming 9-1, they would feel safer with more cops on the street, not fewer…
In Detroit, 1 in 5 residents (19%) cited public safety as the biggest issue facing the city, second only to education, named by 23%. On a list of eight concerns, police reform ranked last, at 4%.
The poll found a significant racial divide on the question. Black residents ranked crime at the top of their list of concerns: 24% cited public safety, and just 3% named police reform.
But white residents were a bit more concerned about police reform than public safety, 12% compared with 10%.
Or consider what happened in Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder took place. Here the closest thing to defunding the police actually got on the ballot (Question 2)…and was soundly defeated, especially by black working class voters.
These sentiments in pro-Democratic black working class urban areas should not come as a surprise. These voters tend to live in areas that have more crime and are therefore unlikely to look kindly on any approach that threatens public safety. A recent Pew poll found that black and Hispanic Democrats—who are far more urban and working class--are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favor more police funding in their area.
All this suggests that Republican appeals on crime may find a considerably more receptive audience among black working class voters than most Democrats assume.
Other cultural issues may present problems. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll found plurality support among black voters for provisions in a Florida bill that banned the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and limited lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity after third grade to age-appropriate discussions. This is a timely reminder that the great majority of blacks (71 percent according to Gallup) consider themselves moderate or conservative, not liberal.
None of this means, of course, that black voters will not very strongly support Democrats in this coming election and for some time to come. They likely will. But the solidity of that support cannot be assumed. It is susceptible to erosion, particularly among working class blacks, and we can see the signs of this already. The days of taking overwhelming, close to unanimous, support for Democrats among blacks for granted should be over.