Joe Biden and the Legend of the Black Voter

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
AP featured image
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)


When Joe Biden ended last week by saying that any black voter who isn’t voting for him “ain’t black,” he started a conversation that is continuing this week, although it is not falling across the usual partisan lines.

The subject of race, when it comes to voting, is typically treated by both sides as just one monolithic block that all moves in the same direction. Republicans more often than not write black voters off as a segment of voters they will never reach and Democrats generally take for granted that they will just up and vote for them. And, usually, that is the case.

But it is largely unfair to treat black voters in a one-size-fits-all way when you rarely look at white voters the same way. There are different types of black voters and in many of the same ways there are different types of white voters.

When considering white voters, we use all sorts of categories: progressive and conservative, evangelical and atheist, male and female, urban and rural, college-educated and non-college-educated, etc.

But, when we look at black voters, we rarely break it down so much. It’s black men and black women, and sometimes by age. Even those who look at voting statistics rarely go into much detail because it’s just assumed that they are by and large going to be Democrat voters and there is no need to. Donald Trump won 1.2 million of their votes in 2016, though, and while black Democrats have largely coalesced around Joe Biden, that isn’t stopping Trump’s team from reaching out to them this cycle, either.


There’s a reason for that. According to the Pew Research Center

By contrast, more black Democratic voters continue to characterize their views as moderate rather than liberal. In 2019, 43% of black Democrats called themselves moderate, 29% called themselves liberal and 25% called themselves conservative.

Since 2000, the share of black Democrats who describe their political views as liberal has changed little, while liberal identification among white Democrats has nearly doubled.

A quarter of black Democrats identify as conservative, and according to Pew, and the growth of liberal black Democrats has slowed. That is significant, and it bears looking into.

538 did a little bit of looking, and the reason black voters appear monolithic appears to be due to social pressure within the black voting community.

Our first piece of evidence came from survey data collected by the 2012 American National Election Study (ANES). In that survey, interviewers asked respondents face to face which party they identify with. We then looked at the race of the interviewer and the race of the respondents to see if black respondents generally answered differently depending on who asked the question. We concluded black respondents were more likely to report they were a Democrat when they were with a black interviewer (96.4 percent) than a nonblack interviewer (83.9 percent) or an online survey (85 percent).


The piece goes on with another story

We ran a separate study around the 2012 presidential election to test the same theory. We wanted to determine the likelihood that black individuals would defect from the norm (supporting Democratic candidates) when offered money. In the study, 106 black students at a midwest college were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Each was given $10 by an interviewer and told the money could be donated to Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. Subjects were informed that they were not obligated to donate the money and that they could decide to keep it. But if they chose to give it to a candidate, $10 would be donated for every $1 they allocated. (This was just a ruse — the money was not actually donated.) They were also told that they should make their decision once they entered a separate room, away from the interviewer, where there would be one contribution box for Romney and another for Obama.

But not all the students were in the room alone. One group of students was, but two other groups were paired with an actor pretending to be another participant. In each scenario, the actor was instructed to walk into the room and immediately say out loud that he or she was donating all the money to Obama, then make the donation. One group paired participants with a white actor; in the other, the actor was black.


You can see where this goes.

People in the first group — the loners — kept most of the money, donating on average $3.74 to the Obama campaign. In the group with the white actor, individuals donated $4.45 to the Obama campaign. This amount was not statistically different from the scenario in which no actor was present. But in the third group, with the black actor, the average Obama contribution increased to $6.85 — a significant increase relative to the group where no actor was present.2

In other words, black participants were less likely to pocket the money when another black person said he or she would be donating to Obama. The participant felt pressure to comply with the expectation of behavior by someone similar to them.

Now, this is a small set of studies and by no means is it definitive, but there are observable trends that also match known demographics within the black community.

Among southern blacks, in particular, you find a lot more religious conservatism, particularly among men. Likewise, among black mothers you find more conservative ideas on education — like opening up school choice and education reform.

In truth, Joe Biden simply did out loud what many Democrats believe quietly behind closed doors, but it’s not like he said anything Republicans don’t also believe some form of. It is not impossible to win a segment of black voters, and it’s not unlikely that you’ll see a not-insignificant number of black voters going with Trump again in 2020. However, you don’t win any of them when you don’t try for them, which is what a lot of Republicans have opted to do for several election cycles.


Joe Biden, as he proved on Friday, doesn’t have a monopoly on any demographic, but it’s up to Republicans to make a better case than they have been.


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