The Black Vote Was Good But Not Great for the Democrats in 2020

Why Was This?

It has been widely noted that the Hispanic vote was relatively poor for the Democrats in 2020. While Biden carried the group overall, Trump made significant gains as I discussed in a previous post.

But that wasn’t the Democrats’ only disappointment among nonwhite voters. Democratic margins among black voters also appear to have declined (by perhaps 4 points), though not by nearly as much as among Hispanics (16 points). 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 will likely depend on the ability of the Democrats to provide material improvements in their lives, particularly for those in working class and poor communities.