Thursday, June 9, 2016

Black voters and the 2016 primaries, Part 3: Turnout for what

This is the third part of a three-part series on the role of black voters in the 2016 Democratic primaries; the first part is here, and the second is here.

CORRECTION (10/3/16) - Turnout numbers and percentages have been updated in light of a data entry error that has since been corrected. I have also updated the graph accordingly.

Hillary Clinton has won an overwhelming majority of black voters who have participated in the Democratic primaries: The Wall Street Journal places her share at 75.9%, and my math puts it at 77.9%. This is certainly a better showing than we saw from Sanders, who won support from about a quarter of black voters, and astronomically better than Hillary v.2008, who won an abysmal 14.9% against Obama.

But on this basis, Clinton's partisans have routinely concluded that their candidate has won some kind of democratic mandate from black Americans. And while this is true in the trivial sense that she has won votes from a majority of those who actually voted, this framing erases the overwhelming majority of voting-age black Americans who either voted against Clinton or declined to vote at all. In fact, based on an analysis of exit polls, turnout numbers and census data, an extraordinary 87.9 84.1 percent of voting-age black Americans have not voted for Clinton.

Voters, for obvious reasons, don't report their race at the ballot box, and entrance/exit polling has only been conducted in about half of the fifty states. But those percentages, cross-referenced with turnout results and census reporting on voting-age black Americans in each state, paint a fairly telling picture:



This is the most exhaustive and direct data we have on Hillary Clinton's support among black Americans. On average, about 12.1 15.9 percent of them - totalling around four million ballots - have voted for her and against Bernie Sanders. The other 29.4 21.9 million voting-age black Americans did neither.

The reasons for this are well understood: nobody votes in the primaries. For one, they are structured in a way that reduces turnout. Black Americans also report that they have little faith in the primary process - a majority (53%) think that "the outcome of the primary would have been very different if the DNC had been more even-handed" (28% report not sure), and only 29% think that "the current system of presidential primaries and caucases...has generally...produced the best candidates for president". A landslide majority of black Americns (82%) plan to vote for "the Democratic Party candidate" no matter who it is. They also report little faith in the government in general: a majority (58%) say that "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" (21% report not sure); a majority (52%) say that "most of the time" special interests are "able to get what they want by contributing money to political campaigns" (22% report not sure); and a majority (57%) report that politicians "lie to get elected" (6% report not sure). [Numbers from YouGov / Economist] Moreover, Pew reports that only 41% of black Americans believe "that voting gives people some say in how government runs things and that ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington".

Another potential explanation is that when black voters tell us that particular issues are important to them, they mean it, and that neither Bernie Sanders nor Hillary Clinton have sufficently addressed them. If this is true, then it seems clear that both candidates should have proposed a more ambitious agenda on social security, health care, the economy, education, and gun control - the five issues that black Americans tend to rank as "most important".

Regardless, all of this should put Clinton's relationship with black Americans in a very different light than her partisans suggest.  If a majority or even a plurality voted for her in the primaries, it might make sense to argue that this indicates some kind of significant mandate. As it stands, only a tiny handful of black Americans are voting either way. This could say more about things like barriers to participation in the primaries than it says about what black Americans want, though other polling suggests that they, like most Americans, simply have little confidence or interest in national politics - or that they want even more from their candidates than either Sanders or Clinton were prepared to offer.