election 2020

Is It Too Late for Bernie Sanders to Win Over Black Voters?

What the past week tells us about Black voting patterns in the Democratic primary and what might happen going forward.
March 6, 2020, 5:54pm
joe biden bernie sanders
Collage by Hunter French | Images via Getty

Joe Biden has re-solidified his frontrunner status in the race, thanks in large part to the key support of Black voters. After Representative Jim Clyburn’s critical endorsement in South Carolina, Biden swept the state with 61 percent of the Black vote, reigniting a campaign that had seemed deflated only days before. Then right before Super Tuesday, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttiegieg dropped out and coalesced around Biden, creating a centrist firewall that helped the former vice president sweep the Southern states up for grabs by large margins.

Biden’s strong support from Black voters was no surprise. But while the top-level headline is that Black voters have chosen their candidate, the electorate is not a uniform monolith. The race isn’t over—as of now, Sanders trails Biden in the delegate count 551 to 627, with more votes still coming in. So what can the past week tell us about Black voting patterns and what might happen going forward?

VICE reached out to Theodore Johnson, senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies the role that race plays in electoral politics, to talk about Super Tuesday, the regional and ideological diversity of Black voters, and the race going forward between Biden and Sanders.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

It was recently reported that Sanders didn’t try to court Jim Clyburn’s endorsement, which Sanders explained was because he never thought he would get it. How important do you think that endorsement ended up being?

Clyburn’s endorsement was really important, frankly more important than I even thought it was going to be. Clyburn’s endorsement didn’t mean much for the nation, but it meant a whole lot for his state, especially because the Black population tends to be pretty concentrated there. I knew it would be meaningful. What I didn’t realize was that the number of people who were undecided 72 hours before the election. Those Black voters took their cues from Clyburn’s endorsement.

Biden was doing really well with Black South Carolinians as soon as he entered the race all the way through most of 2019. Those folks that lost confidence in Biden and began flirting around with other candidates—Clyburn’s endorsement brought them back home.

Sanders not courting Clyburn says to me two things—one is that he recognizes that he’s not part of the establishment crowd. Clyburn’s been around for a very long time and he tends to play ball with the Pelosis. It doesn’t surprise me he didn’t ask on that point, but it does surprise me he didn’t ask because he’s often championed one of Clyburn’s policy proposals, the 10/20/30 economic justice program. Ideologically at least, there was some common ground between Sanders and Clyburn. But apparently Sanders didn’t think that was sufficient enough to warrant asking for Clyburn’s endorsement.

The other thing this does is play into the narrative we’ve been hearing that he doesn’t play well with others. Just a month ago, Hillary Clinton was saying nobody likes the guy, he can’t get anything done. Elizabeth Warren was saying I’m the one who can get things done, Bernie can’t. Not even talking to Clyburn about an endorsement in South Carolina confirms this go-it-alone narrative that has been saddled on Sanders. Attempting it, even if he knew it wasn’t going to go his way, would have helped combat the narrative that he doesn’t seek others' support.

The common analysis is that Joe Biden has Black voters on a lock, but the electorate is not a monolith and younger Black voters tend to go for Sanders. Do you think Sanders has a path to expanding his base with the Black electorate?

I do think he has a path to expanding it, but not in a way that’s going to change the outcome of the election. We’ve got some space coming up in the Midwest in particular where he can do better with younger Black voters. But even if he does marginally better with younger Black voters, they vote at lower rates and they’re not enough of the population in those states to change the outcome of the race.

Sanders won Michigan in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. One of reasons was because her Black support there was 15 to 20 points less than in other states, especially compared to the deep South. There are some Midwestern states where she underperformed her share of Black electorate relative to the deep South and Northeastern states. We’re going to find out if those folks were voting against Hillary when they voted for Sanders, or if they were voting for Sanders and if that support is going to stick. It’s not going to be enough even if he does marginally better—so he can make some inroads but it’s not going to change.

Are there ways in which Sanders can tailor his message to the base that usually goes to someone like Biden?

He’s trying. Yesterday he released the ad of him and Obama buddying around. And Sanders isn’t trying to win the Black vote, he’s just trying to improve his showing. If he can just lose by 20 points instead of 60 that makes a difference. I think that’s what he’s trying to do, to convince Black progressives and younger Black voters to not just support him but actually show up on election day and vote for him. He’ll have more success doing that in states out West and in the Midwest.

The best he can hope for is to win enough Black voters to prevent Biden from getting a large delegate lead, and then hope that his really solid showing in many states with Hispanic voters—and winning over white men and non-college educated white voters—that the margin to victory with those demographics will reduce the impact of his loss among Black voters.

Sanders failed to turn out young people in the ways in which he had hoped. Low youth turnout and turnout in general seems to me like a crisis we need to focus on, regardless of candidate. Do you think disenfranchisement and voting barriers play a big role when it comes to young people, especially young people of color, not turning out?

We definitely know that voter suppression has the intended effect of removing people from voter registration rolls, of making their wait times longer. We know that when people aren’t registered to vote in enough time and have to wait 4 to 7 hours to vote, that they’re less likely to stick around to cast their votes. What we don’t know are the margins of that effect. Does that turn away .1 percent or 5 percent? What we do know about younger voters generally is that they vote at a lower rate than older voters. The under-30 crowd doesn't vote at the same rate as over-45 voters and that holds especially true for Black voters.

People are pinning a lot of Biden’s success to the fact that the establishment, including Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, coalesced around him at that moment. How much do you think this was a factor in influencing Black voters?

Not much. Klobuchar and Buttigieg were basically at statistical zeroes with Black voters. So it wasn't like they suddenly left them and went to Biden. What I do think their endorsement did was increase the perception of Biden’s electability and viability of his campaign. Pragmatic Black voters, which tend to be older, more moderate, take those cues as a sign that this guy that we kind of know and trust is also now electable and viable. This is the perception Biden had around him when he first declared all the way through the summer and into the fall. After some debates, he started to lose an air of electability and viability and Black voters that were with him started looking at [Mike] Bloomberg, [Tom] Steyer, [Elizabeth] Warren, and even Sanders. So what Clyburn’s endorsement did, plus the endorsements of Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke—all who were former presidential candidates—showed that “Okay, whatever doubts we had about his electibilty and viability will now be addressed.”

There’s been a disingenuous conflation I’ve seen from some pundits that criticizing Biden’s corporate support from donors is the same as calling the Black voters who voted for him “corporate Democrats.” What do you think of this narrative?

Black Twitter was a fascinating place to be and observe [Wednesday] morning. There were a couple of narratives, one was that pragmatic Black voters in the South had been duped and used. Black progressives were saying, “I don’t agree with the choices they made but if you’re saying that Black voters are dumb and low-info because they supported a candidate you don’t like, that’s going too far.” Even with deep disagreements among Black voters about who to support, there was still this solidarity that we’ve all come to expect, when chastising one group for being stupid and being labeled these stereotypical labels.

Sanders and his supporters’ message has been consistent for four years that the 1 percent have rigged the economy and now this idea that the primary or the election is being rigged because the establishment candidates are coalescing behind their guy. It’s the same message we’ve been hearing, but when that message is followed by “Black voters in the South rescued Biden’s candidacy,” they become conflated. I don’t think there’s been enough from Sanders’ camp to say, “Wait a minute, we’re not saying that Black voters were duped by the establishment candidate, we’re saying that Biden is an establishment candidate and that's a separate point from the people who have chosen to vote for him.” They have not done that well.

Part of Sanders’ appeal is [that] the nuance is besides the point. He’s very much a bumper sticker candidate and that’s why people know him and like him and trust him, because he’s very consistent in his framing. But in these instances where nuance is necessary, not being able to match nuance with nuance is a problem. Biden hit him on it this morning, saying, “Hey Sanders, millions of Black voters throughout the South who supported me are not the establishment.” Sanders comes back on Twitter being like, “No Joe, it’s the millionaires and billionaires that have funded your campaign that are the establishment and that's what we're talking about.” But he didn’t follow up that billionaire comment with understanding Black voters’ choices or vowing to win Black support in the remaining states. It was just back to the class message and establishment message and I think that’s going to be a problem for Sanders if he has any inclination to increase his share of the Black vote in the remaining states.

Do you think it takes longer for Black people to trust a candidate and has it helped Sanders that this is the second time in a row he’s running?

Absolutely yes on the trust. If we look at who Black voters have supported over the last 40 years, it’s been Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and now Biden. Only Kerry and [Bill] Clinton were relatively new to Black audiences when they ran, but looking at who they were running against showed why they were able to win Black support. Clinton was running against one guy from California and one guy from Massachusetts. So when deep South states with a large Black population started voting, Clinton relied on his Southern roots to appeal to them. In elections where no candidate has a deep relationship with Black voters, Black voters will make decisions on a shorter timeline because you kind of have to.

But in those elections where at least one candidate has an established relationship, getting a new candidate to overtake that established candidate is extremely difficult. It didn't happen in 1984, 1988, 2000, and Obama had to work extremely hard to overcome the established relationship that Hillary Clinton had with the Black electorate. He was only able to do that by being a once-in-a-generation Black politician.

So for someone to overturn Biden this cycle, they were going to have to pull an Obama or a Bill Clinton, by showing a cultural connection based on regional roots or being so savvy in their appeal that they could undermine Biden’s reputation. Sanders is more progressive than the vast majority of Black voters and he hadn’t done much in intervening years between 2016 and 2020 to establish a deeper or more robust connection with the Black electorate. Certainly not one that could compete with Biden who, for the last decade, has been chiefly known as Obama’s vice president. It takes a long time to establish these relationships. Those with established relationships can be beaten but you have to be really, really good at making a connection with Black voters across the country and have a broader appeal in showing you’re electable and viable.

We often don’t talk about ideological diversity among Black voters—how did we see this play out in the different Super Tuesday states?

I think if we look at how Biden and Sanders competed in California and Nevada that gives us a taste of it. Biden only won the Black vote in Nevada by 10 points and it was essentially a four-way split in California. That’s something we almost never see with Black voters in the primary, usually whoever wins the Black vote in one state wins it in every state by 50 or 60 points comfortably. So I do think Black progressives out West are probably more progressive than Black progressives in the South. And Black progressives in the Midwest are probably less progressive than the West but more progressive than those in the South.

Black voters are spread out across the spectrum. Some of them, not the majority, will choose the candidate that is most proximate on the ideological spectrum to their own beliefs. But the majority of them are going to lean on, who is the candidate I know and trust, and make the pragmatic choice. I’m going to choose the person that may not be able to get all the things done I want to get done from White House, but I know they’re not going to roll back civil rights protections. There’s tons of ideological diversity within Black America but it doesn’t exercise itself electorally in the same way that it might for other races, and that’s because of the pragmatism and not because there isn’t a diversity.

How do you think the next few states will play out for Sanders and Biden?

For the Black vote, I think Biden is going to win in every state where the Black population is more than 5 percent. With Bloomberg out, my sense is that the vast majority of his Black support, which is usually in the double digits, is going to go back to Biden. I think we’ll probably see Biden winning the Black vote in every state with substantial, Black populations 70-30. There’s just not a favorable state for Sanders with Black voters going forward.

I do think there is a regional character to the Black vote, and we’re going to see that continue to play out. Black voters in Illinois are not going to vote like Black voters in Mississippi. Both of them may overall support Biden and if that’s the case, the narrative will be that Black voters have coalesced and chosen their candidate. But when there’s a 20 or 30 point swing between how Black voters in one section of the country differ from Black voters in another section, that’s a story that is not being told enough.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.