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You Asked Us: Why Do Black Voters Support Hillary Clinton?

Ethnic minority voters are the key to Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. Why don't they like Bernie Sanders?

Hillary Clinton won almost everywhere with everyone last night. She won women – by 32 points.  She won among white voters, among the over-30s, with Hispanics. But her biggest victories – and the votes that have ended Bernie Sanders’ hopes of securing the nomination – came from black people. Across the 11 states contested last night, she won black voters by 68 points. In Alabama, she got 92 per cent of the black vote.

It wasn’t just last night, either. As listeners to our podcast will know, one of the reasons why I never took the time to form a strong opinion about the merits of Bernie Sanders is because it was clear, even in his great triumph in New Hampshire, that he simply didn’t have a wide enough reach across the Democratic coalition. 

It was ethnic minority voters who powered Clinton’s victories in Nevada and South Carolina – even in ultra-white Iowa, her razor-thin victory came off the backs of minority voters, who preferred her to Sanders.

Why don’t black voters back Sanders? It’s a question that I’m often emailed as part of our “You Asked Us” feature on our podcast. (Did I mention we have a podcast? You can subscribe on iTunes.)

It’s a little about Sanders, a lot about the Clintons, and a little, too, about the question itself.

Firstly, Sanders’ problem is not a new one. He is from a long line of American liberals who have struggled to connect with black voters – Gary Hart, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas – which used to be a mild inconvenience for Democratic politicians and is now an insurmountable obstacle. (If America looked like it did in 1988, it would be Sanders who was in a commanding position in the primary race, and Clinton without a chance.)

Sanders – or his similarly demographically limited predecessors – has simply not had to speak to or about the issues facing black America all that much. Unlike Bill Clinton, a southern Democrat, for whom the black vote was an essential element of his successful bids not just for the Presidency but for his gubernatorial runs in Arkansas, or Hillary herself, a Senator for New York for eight years.

And while the compromises of what we may soon start calling the first Clinton era had dire repercussions for African Americans, Sanders’ Congressional career is no bed of roses either. Sanders voted for the same 1994 crime bill that saw the number of incarcerated black Americans skyrocket. His opposition to large waves of gun control legislation has directly endangered American lives just as surely as Bill Clinton’s bowing to a Republican Congress did.

Sanders, too, has spent large chunks of the last eight years opposing America’s first black President – calling for him to face a primary challenge in 2012, voting against his attempt to close Guantanamo in 2009. The small number of African Americans who have endorsed Sanders have tended to be hyper-critical of Obama – like Cornel West, or Killer Mike.

You can argue that Obama has deserved all that criticism, and whether or not black America has tended to turn a blind eye to the disappointments of the Obama administration – for a fuller explanation of the relationship between Obama and black America, Michael Eric Dyson’s The Black Presidency is indispensable – the fact remains: anti-Obamaism has been a large component of Sandersism, a sort of electoral halitosis that he has been unable to overcome.

But it’s worth noting that, actually, Sanders does fairly well among black Americans in the polls. Black Americans think that Sanders is honest, trustworthy, and so forth. They just don’t vote for him because they like the Clintons more.

A large part of that lies in the Clintons and their record. Under Bill Clinton, median household income grew by 25 per cent in African-American households, at double the speed as it did for households nationwide. Unemployment among African Americans fell by six points, against a three-point drop among the population as a whole. It was the first time in American history that the fruits of economic boom were truly felt in black households.

And crucially, the Clintons turn up to stuff. In this race, Clinton has been talking about fitting police with body cameras – a key demand of the Black Lives Matter campaign – before Sanders was even a candidate. The Sanders campaign produced one of the most powerful political adverts in history, designed to fix their candidate’s problem with ethnic minority voters. But it was produced just weeks before voting started in South Carolina. It was beautiful – but it was a beautiful afterthought.

Whereas Hillary Clinton has put in the hard yards if nothing else, and to many black voters, does genuinely seem to get it. That there is something more than just political opposition in the Republican reaction to Obama. 

And then there’s the supporter problem. Throughout the race, there has been an attitude among some Sanders supporters that either condescends or ignores black voters. That emails to say that of course, black voters might not be going for Sanders just yet, but as soon as they “listen to his message” they will be won over. That says, effectively, that Clintonism is a state of sin from which black voters will shortly be uplifted. Or, writes, as the Guardian did, that “the Clinton machine” has “a hold” on African-American voters, who didn’t vote for Clinton in 2008 and are no more in “the hold” of a “machine” as white liberal graduates – who have voted for Sanders at every election he has fought since 1991 – are for Sanders. That describes Clinton as the candidate of “corporate America” and ignores the fact that she is also the candidate of black America.  That describes Sanders as the “candidate of the future”, when the future of the Democratic Party increasingly rests on the same demographics that are least friendly towards Sanders.

That asks “why are black voters backing Hillary Clinton?” Well, for the same reason that white millennials are backing Bernie Sanders. Because they think she’s the candidate that best reflects their hopes and can win policy victories for them.

They may be wrong – but the presumption that they are any less well-informed or fixed in their views than supporters of the Sanders deserves greater examination than it has thus far received.

If you have any questions you’d like us to tackle either on the podcast or on the Staggers, drop me an email at stephen.bush<at>newstatesman.co.uk and we’ll try to tackle it. Eventually.  

Now listen to Stephen Bush  and Helen Lewis discuss Super Tuesday, on the New Statesman Podcast:

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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The New Statesman Cover: The revenge of the left

A first look at this week's magazine.

22 - 28 September issue
The revenge of the left