Posted on March 9, 2020

Why Bernie Sanders Isn’t Winning Over Black Voters

Christopher S. Parker and Christopher Towler, Politico, March 7, 2020


Democrats who wish to beat Trump but prefer Sanders to former Vice President Joe Biden, must ask themselves the following question: Can a campaign that rests primarily on class warfare and economic justice, one that largely relegates race to a concern simply encompassed by economic reform, attract enough black voters to prevail?

Recently, we conducted a national survey of the black community to answer this question. We found that if Democrats hope to mobilize the African American community, a Sanders-style message framing Trump as a threat to the poor and the working-class isn’t the best way to do it. If the goal is to maximize black turnout in 2020, a message emphasizing the threat that Trump poses to racial progress, according to our survey, is more effective.

Without question, the black community will, by and large, support whomever Democrats decide to run against Trump. The issue is turnout. After black turnout rates outpaced white turnout for the first time in history in 2012, they declined by 7 percentage points in 2016. However, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, if black voters in 2020 turn out at rates commensurate to 2012, the Democratic nominee can flip four key states away from Trump—Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—and, most likely, win the election.


Late last year, we sampled 1,545 black voters across the United States. The survey included a battery of questions about how likely they were to participate in the 2020 election in various ways—from what we called “conventional” (e.g., voting and donating) to “contentious” (e.g., protesting and boycotting). We divided the respondents into four groups. Three were presented with different messages about Trump before answering the questions, and the fourth, the control group, received no message. One message framed Trump as a threat to economic justice; one framed him as a threat to racial progress; and one framed him as a threat to American democracy. {snip}

Relative to respondents who received no specific political message, those who were primed with a message depicting Trump as a threat to racial progress were more likely to express confidence that they would participate in the 2020 election in a variety of ways, both conventional and contentious. But these results did not extend in a statistically significant way to those receiving the competing messages: Trump as threat to economic justice and to American democracy. {snip}

In other words, our survey suggests that if Sanders—or whomever Democrats ultimately choose—wants to win over black voters, a message stressing economic justice is not the best option; he needs to appeal explicitly to race. {snip}


{snip} No one expects him to abandon his long-held economic message, but if he wants to increase his support from black voters, he needs to pay more attention to race and racism. Otherwise, his revolution will soon fail again.