The narrative after the 2016 Democratic primary was that black voters overwhelmingly chose Hillary Clinton in part because they didn’t like or connect with Sen. Bernie Sanders. That dislike for Sanders was often attributed to his focus on inequality based on class rather than race and to his sometimes clumsy comments about racial issues. That narrative never really went away, and we’re already seeing coverage of his 2020 campaign that suggests he has a problem with black voters that he must fix if he wants to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
But while some black political activists may dislike the Vermont senator, there is little evidence that black voters do. Polls suggest black voters liked Sanders in 2016 and like him now. Rather, if 2016 is any guide, the barrier to Sanders winning black voters will be whether another candidate comes along who black voters like even more.
During the 2016 primary process, exit polls found that Clinton won almost 80 percent of the black vote overall, and she romped through Southern states with large black populations because of that strength. That advantage in the South and with black voters overall (they were about 25 percent of the Democrat electorate in 2016) were huge factors in Clinton winning the Democratic nomination.
But I believe that strength was likely built more on pro-Clinton votes than anti-Sanders votes. Here’s some data that points me toward that conclusion:
- In a Gallup poll conducted at the beginning of 2016, 53 percent of black Democrats had a favorable view of Sanders, while only 16 percent had an unfavorable view — +37 is a good net favorability rating. In fact, Sanders’s net favorability rating was about as high among black Democrats as Clinton’s was among white ones. But Clinton was really popular with black Democrats, with a net favorability rating of +70 points (82 percent favorable, 12 percent unfavorable).
- A poll conducted by Survey Sampling International during those same months showed a similar dynamic. Asked to rank their feelings about Sanders on a scale from 0 (very unfavorable) to 100 (very favorable), black voters gave the Vermont senator a 58, on average. That’s not great, but it’s not bad either. For context, Donald Trump averaged a 22, and Sen. Ted Cruz a 36. Again, Clinton was notably higher at 72.
- In a March 2016 poll, the Pew Research Center asked registered voters if various candidates would be a “great, good, average, poor or terrible president.” Among black Democratic respondents, 67 percent said Clinton would be good or great, while another 25 percent said average. Sanders also had fairly high marks: 62 percent said he would be good or great, 27 percent said average.
- And young black voters actually liked Sanders more than Clinton by some measures. A Gallup survey from April 2016 suggested that Sanders’s favorability rating among black millennials (67 percent) was higher than Clinton’s (60 percent.) And this was borne out in the results. Among black voters under 30, the two candidates split the vote about evenly in 2016. But older black voters were a bigger part of the electorate the 2016 primary (suggesting they were most likely to turn out and vote), and they leaned heavily toward Clinton.
I’m not saying that Sanders was beloved by black voters in 2016, or that he couldn’t have done a better job of appealing to them. But I think an accurate reading of what we know from 2016 is that black voters liked Sanders — just less than Clinton.
You can see all this in recent polling too. Sanders remains fairly popular with African Americans. A December 2018 Quinnipiac poll found that 55 percent of black voters had a favorable view of Sanders, while 26 percent had an unfavorable view. (Clinton was at 62-22.) Most more recent polls didn’t publish candidates’ favorability with specific demographic groups. (Often the sample sizes aren’t big enough for the results to be meaningful.) But we reached out to Morning Consult, which is doing regular polling of the 2020 race and so amasses fairly large samples of racial and demographic groups. According to their national polling conducted March 18-24, 71 percent of black Democrats had a favorable view of Sanders, compared to 10 percent who had an unfavorable view.
“Duh,” you might say, “Sanders is a Democrat and about 90 percent of black voters back Democrats, so of course black people are favorable toward him.” And you might ask: “Why does it matter if a group likes a candidate if they won’t vote for him or her?”
It matters for two reasons. First, understanding this dynamic between Sanders and black voters should influence media coverage. If Sanders’s problem with black voters in 2016 was about Clinton, not him, the media should probably not cover Sanders with the assumption that he has a tense relationship with black voters or doesn’t understand them. Secondly, it complicates what approach Sanders and his campaign can take to win over more black voters. The Vermont senator is making outreach efforts to black Americans a part of his strategy from the beginning of his campaign in 2020 in a way he did not in 2016. But these efforts may not amount to much if the issue isn’t Sanders’s flaws but his opponents’ strengths. In fact, he may need to attack some of his potential rivals who appeal to black voters. And some Sanders allies have been doing just that over the last few months, in particular highlighting Sen. Kamala Harris’s controversial record as prosecutor.
Who should Sanders be worried about beating him with black voters? The obvious answers are Sens. Cory Booker and Harris, the two prominent black candidates in the race. But the Democrat who is really popular with African Americans right now is former Vice President Joe Biden. In the recent Morning Consult polling, Biden was viewed favorably by 77 percent of black Democrats, with just 8 percent viewing him unfavorably. He’s the only potential candidate who had a better net favorable rating than Sanders with black respondents. Booker (45 favorable, 11 unfavorable) and Harris (48-13) are popular too, but a lot of respondents either don’t know who those two senators are or don’t know them well enough to have an opinion of them yet.
Morning Consult found Biden getting 40 percent of the vote among a national sample of about 2,900 black Democrats, with Sanders at 24 percent, Harris at 11 and Booker at 6. A Quinnipiac poll conducted from March 21-25 similarly found Biden with 44 percent support among black Democrats, with Sanders in second among the 2020 candidates at 17 percent.
In the Morning Consult data, Biden gets a bit more support among black voters than he does from the electorate overall. Harris and Booker overperform a bit with black voters too. Notably, while Sanders doesn’t overperform with black voters, he doesn’t underperform either.
In any case, it’s way too early to predict which candidates will ultimately do well with black Democratic primary voters — or primary voters overall. We don’t know even know yet if Biden is running. Still, I don’t think we should completely discount Biden’s early strength with black voters either.
Looking to next year, you could imagine five or six candidates (or more) staying in race through the first dozen primaries or so. Maybe several of them, including Sanders, get significant chunks of the black vote and no one really consolidates it. That’s a good scenario for the Vermont senator if he maintains his base of younger voters. Or maybe Sanders could gain support among black voters — they already have pretty favorable views about him and he is trying hard to appeal to them. That’s an even better scenario for him.
But Sanders could face the same problem he did in 2016 if the race comes down to say, Sanders vs. Biden or Harris — a candidate who most black voters just like more than the Vermont senator. Either way, there’s little evidence that black voters start off the 2020 race hating him.
From ABC News: