Why Sanders’ Millennial Appeal Won’t Promise Him the Black Vote

February 22, 2016, 4:05 PM UTC
Democratic Presidential Hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) greets students before speaking about the introduction of a bill, "Employ Young Americans Now Act," which would expand youth job training programs, during an event at the HOPE Project in Washington, DC, June 4, 2015. The HOPE Project provides information technology training for young adults and prepares them for entry level positions in the IT field. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Saul Loeb — AFP via Getty Images

Over the weekend, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beat back a strong challenge from Bernie Sanders in Nevada. Many analysts are now predicting Clinton is past the worst threat Sanders posed to her, but that remains to be seen as the candidates face off in Southern states going forward. Sanders will need to make an even bigger push to win voters from different backgrounds, particularly black and Hispanic voters.

With the South Carolina primary Saturday and the SEC Primary next week—which includes primaries in Georgia, Virginia, and Alabama—a large group of African-American voters will have their first opportunity to indicate their preferences for the Democratic nominee. This is an important constituency for any Democratic candidate, as blacks make up approximately 20% to 25% of the overall Democratic primary electorate. And in states with large black populations—like Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi—black voters can easily comprise upwards of 40% to 50% of the Democratic electorate. The Clinton campaign hopes to maintain an advantage among black voters and cruise to victory in these states, while the Sanders campaign has made a concerted effort to try to mobilize black voters to their cause.

Sanders entered this contest with a number of disadvantages among black voters. He wasn’t very well known, and he represents a form of progressivism which critics have charged ignores the ways in which race, not just class, systematically disadvantages people of color. That Sanders lagged Clinton was evident in his misstep last summer at the Netroots Nation conference, where he was booed by Black Lives Matter supporters for proclaiming that “all lives matter.”


Since last summer, though, Sanders has made the effort to reach out to black leaders and to incorporate race into his rhetoric and outreach. After his gaffe at Netroots, he hired Symone Sanders, an AfricanAmerican criminal justice activist, as his press secretary. Recently, he has made the obligatory appearances in Flint, Mich., the site of an environmental disaster with racial overtones, and with Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem. He has garnered the endorsements of leading black public intellectuals and activists, such as Michelle Alexander, Ben Jealous, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Sanders team is hoping that this, coupled with a greater interrogation of how Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare policies hurt blacks (and how Hillary Clinton was implicated in her husband’s administration), will cause black voters to give his candidacy greater consideration.

So far, the scant polls that have been conducted in southern states suggest that these contests are still Clinton’s to lose. The most recent polls in South Carolina and Georgia put her numbers among black voters at above 70% in both states. Sanders could score a psychological victory two ways, though. He could substantially narrow the margin between him and Clinton, or he could try to replicate the generational divide that manifested itself among white voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders easily carried young voters in both states. The question will be whether he can do the same thing among young black voters in the South, even if Clinton wins decisively among older black voters.

A generational split among black primary voters would not be unprecedented. In her landmark book, From Protest to Politics, Katherine Tate found generational and educational differences in support for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid. Jackson’s supporters were younger and better educated. There is also precedent for a split between establishment black Democrats and the black rank-and-file. Remember that in 2008, Clinton garnered early support from a number of black members of Congress, who later shifted their support to Barack Obama after it became clear that their constituents supported him.

We’ve seen in recent years that black and white voters have different perspectives on the issues most important to them. Last summer, for instance, Gallup found that blacks were more than 50% more likely to cite unemployment as the most important issue facing America, nearly twice as likely to cite poverty as most important, and more than three times as likely to cite race relations as the most important issue.

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It is highly unlikely that either Sanders or Clinton will ignore these issues in their platforms. Indeed, over the course of this campaign, both candidates have become adept at acknowledging key Democratic constituencies (including blacks) and racialized issues in their stump speeches. How these overtures resonate will be a function of each voter’s strategic goals and stylistic preferences. Those who think Clinton is more electable or who prefer a more moderate approach to pursuing policy goals will likely pick her. Those who think that the most recent Democratic presidents could have done more to tackle racial inequality might be more inclined to support Sanders.

For years, we have heard about how blacks are the most loyal Democratic voting bloc in the United States. While this is true, that loyalty masks class, as well as generational, ideological, and tactical differences that challenge the idea that blacks are a monolithic group. If we see even modest levels of divergence among black voters in South Carolina and beyond, it should caution us to remember the richness of political perspectives and experiences that comprise black communities in the United States.

Andra Gillespie is an associate professor of political science at Emory University. Her research covers African American politics, particularly the politics of the post-Civil Rights generation of leadership, and political participation, in which she uses experimental methods of inquiry.

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