Black voters saved Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic primary. They are the firm base of the Democratic coalition, despite a diversity of backgrounds and opinions, but some have shown signs of openness to Donald Trump. How do Black voters select candidates? And when and why do they prioritize descriptive representation? Julian Wamble finds that Black voters seek strong signals that politicians will prioritize the group’s interest over their personal interest, particularly from historic sacrifice. We discuss his research on how candidates can demonstrate social ties, political connections, and personal sacrifice to Black voters and whether those strategies trade off with candidate appeals to white voters.
Study: We Choose You
Guest: Julian Wamble, George Washington University
Matt Grossmann: How black voters choose candidates, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Black voters saved Joe Biden in the 2020 Democratic primary, shunning some black and other white candidates. They’re the firm base of the Democratic coalition despite a diversity of backgrounds and opinions, but some have shown signs of openness to Donald Trump. How do black voters select candidates, and when and why do they prioritize descriptive representation?
This week I talk to Julian Wamble of George Washington University about his research and book manuscript, We Choose You. He finds that black voters seek strong signals that politicians will prioritize the group’s interest over their personal interest, particularly from historic sacrifice. We discuss his research on how candidates can demonstrate social ties, political connection, and personal sacrifice to black voters, and whether those strategies trade off with candidate appeals to white voters. I think you’ll enjoy our conversation.
So your dissertation and book manuscript look at vote choice among black voters. So tell us what the traditional explanations for vote choice are among black voters and what they leave out.
Julian Wamble: Generally, when we look at how individuals kind of talk about black voting behavior, particularly in terms of candidate selection, there tends to be a kind of consensus, particularly in the kind of Jesse Jackson era and in the Obama era, of if you are black and a Democrat, black voters are going to support you. And while there’s validity to to that to the extent that we’ve seen kind of high numbers both for Jesse Jackson and for Obama, what I think is missing is the fact that there are a lot of other black politicians who have run who have not been able to garner that level of success. And that tells us a story about something else happening underneath the hood.
And my argument is that in a lot of ways, black voters are looking for more than just a kind of sign that a politician looks like them and are looking for what I call kind of commitment or community commitment, some sort of indication that you are someone who is willing to prioritize the group’s interest above your own kind of personal interest or political interest. Because black voters have a very specific political experience that leads them to be extremely skeptical and very shrewd about those individuals who they allow to represent them. And so I think that that level of nuance is what’s missed in these kind of very phenotypic based explanations.
Matt Grossmann: So yeah, you emphasize this community commitment and how it can be signaled in campaign messages. So give us a few more explicit examples. And you talked about very well-known candidates, but maybe you can give us some in the other categories of are there any non-black candidates that can signal that commitment? And who are the black candidates who haven’t been able to signal that commitment?
Julian Wamble: So I think that in a lot of cases, I think of people who have done it very effectively are politicians who are a bit older. So I think of the late John Lewis, who was very intentional about invoking his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as a way to kind of show that commitment. And he often used it as a way to connect other politicians who may or may not have that history to his own narrative. So we saw John Ossoff do this a lot, kind of bridging their narratives together. We saw Cori Bush, a congresswoman out of Missouri, talk about her time as a organizer in St. Louis. We see Steve Cohen, who was a white congressman out of Tennessee, who in 2007 ran against the former mayor of Memphis, W.W. Herenton, and a number of other very viable, well-known black candidates. And while he couldn’t talk about sacrifices that he’s made, he did talk about his connections to other black people in the establishment of the Memphis area.
We saw Bill de Blasio do this when he ran for mayor of New York City. He talked a lot about his connections to his wife when he ran for president, actually. He talked about his son, Dante, who is a black man and talked a lot about and said on the stage of the debate, “I’m the only one up here who has a black son.” We saw Cory Booker on that same debate stage actually, talk about the fact that he was the only one on that stage who was living in the projects or living in kind of subsidized housing in Newark at the time. And so we see kind of invocations of community commitment, which I argue is again, this commitment to prioritizing the group’s interest, political interest, social interest, above one’s own kind of personal prestige.
And so in these instances, what we see is politicians taking their own connections to the black community in the case of Bill de Blasio, in the case of Steve Cohen, and highlighting these connections as a way to, I argue, show a level of accountability to the racial group. And there’s an amazing quote that was done in an article about Bill de Blasio when a gentleman said every morning he has to wake up to his wife, who was a black woman. And if she says, “My people are hurting,” he can’t ignore that. And I think that that kind of highlights this connection that Bill De Blasio was able to kind of communicate to black voters about not only his connection to the racial group, but a very intimate connection that suggested that he would be accountable to the group and prioritize the interests of the group.
I think Cori Bush talks very kind of candidly about her own experiences with police brutality and the sacrifices that she has made. And we’ve seen her while she’s been in office, organize, I think they did, it wasn’t a sit-in because they were outside, but they were outside protesting on behalf of people who were unhoused. And she talked about her own experiences as being unhoused and how that disproportionately affects communities of color. And so we see these examples of individuals who have done it effectively.
When we think about those who have not, I think about, more often than not, people who have not effectively done community commitment signaling are individuals who have not done signaling at all. And so I think of Anthony Brown in 2014 when he ran for governor of Maryland, and then simultaneously Benjamin Jealous, who ran for governor of Maryland in 2018, both of whom ran very different kinds of campaigns. And so Anthony Brown was coming off the heels of Obama and was kind of running a more deracialized campaign with the belief that he could kind of mimic what Obama had done.
We saw a very similar thing in 2010 with Artur Davis, who was running for governor of Alabama, and he also ran a race that very rarely did he invoke race. And in a moment where he was kind of called upon by the kind of black power structure in Alabama, he kind of shunned them in ways that led to him kind of being seen as someone who was trying to work outside of the black community and also kind of voted against the Affordable Care Act, which was seen as kind of something that was standing in the face of black individuals and was cast that way by the kind of well-known black politicians in the state.
Anthony Brown ran, again, a very kind of deracialized campaign where he didn’t really talk about race that often until the very end when it became very clear that he was not getting the level of black support that they thought he would, given the historic nature of his campaign because he would’ve been the first black governor of Maryland. And in a poll that was done by The Washington Post and University of Maryland at the time, when asked what they thought either Anthony Brown or Larry Hogan, his white Republican opponent, would’ve done for black people and whether or not one of them would be more beneficial, 60% of black voters in that sample said it wouldn’t make a difference.
And so that’s a very strong indication of kind of Brown’s failure to communicate any level of commitment when his white Republican counterpart, which the literature and many anecdotes which suggest, should have absolutely no appeal. And they were tied in terms of the belief of what they would do for the black community. And so those are just a few examples of individuals who have either not shown any commitment to the group or not done it well.
Matt Grossmann: So some of your previous work looks at black attachment to the Democratic Party as governed by social solidarity and sort of compliance within the black community that this is our side. And your co-authors who’ve been on before have articulated this theory and they’re buck steadfast Democrats, which may sound similar to some of your theories. So give us what you share with that approach and where your approach differs.
Julian Wamble: So I think what we share is that we are all talking about this idea of a kind of socialized understanding of accountability that operates outside of the space of a more formalized political understanding of accountability, which is generally kind of characterized as if you don’t do what we want you to do, we just won’t vote for you. And I think what Ismail White and Chryl Laird also kind of talk about and what I build off from them is this idea that black people have kind of a socialized understanding of accountability that is very much based off of the use of social sanctions as a way to keep individuals in the more social space from choosing their own personal interest over that of group interest. And what I do in my own work is build off of that and make an argument that that same kind of expectation that is kind of grounded in a social space is then used and augmented for individuals seeking to represent black people.
And I argue that that’s the case because as Ismail and Chryl show us, it’s very effective. And to that end, black voters are much more interested in what they know works than structures that have been proven, as far as they’re concerned, to not be as effective to get the things that they want out of those individuals who are at least seeking their support in some way. And so I argue that that same level of accountability is something that they are then looking for from individuals who are politicians and elites. And that that is something that they are also using to hold them accountable as well, even within a more formalized political structure.
Matt Grossmann: So another difference seems to be their emphasis on group interactions outside of the candidate in churches and in other predominantly black spaces where some of your emphasis is more on kind of what’s under the candidate’s control in terms of ads and their debate messages and their speeches. So how do those things interact? Can you get kind of the word of mouth compliance without the candidate messaging? Can you get the candidate messaging that doesn’t translate into the word of mouth that’s necessary to generate that adherence?
Julian Wamble: I think politicians definitely benefit if you are able to get both. I think if you can have a campaign ad or a message that resonates in a way that gets black people talking in very kind of public spaces I think, I’m thinking particularly of the race between Herschel Walker and Senator Raphael Warnock. And what Warnock was able to do very effectively, partially because of his own connections to the black church as an institution in and of itself, is that he was able to use those networks within his own kind of ads, but also to use those networks to get people talking about him.
And I think a very prominent black pastor in Atlanta, Jamal Bryant, kind of gave a whole sermon that wasn’t necessarily in favor of Raphael Warnock, but was definitely kind of a derision of Herschel Walker. And so I think that there are ways in which the kind of social networks that black people tend to occupy are what black politicians or politicians seeking their support regardless of their race, they want to be part of those conversations. And so I think that that’s why we see instances of politicians, like Vice President Harris going during the campaign and going onto prominent black radio stations. President Biden did the exact same thing.
We see them kind of utilizing these social spaces in the same way that they would other kind of spaces that are more political in nature because they kind of want those conversations of the political and the social to converge in very meaningful ways. And so I think while my work is very focused on the kind of campaign messages, I think what we see is that it’s no mistake that during a democratic primary, politicians are going down to South Carolina and going to a black church and they’re making their selves known and they’re making their kind of political pitches in these seemingly, I mean, for the black community, the black church is extremely political space, but we see them outside of formalized political spaces making the same kinds of appeals and sending the same kinds of signals that they would if they were doing it in a campaign ad. And so I think there’s a recognition of one’s desire to appeal to black voters means that you have to blend together the social and the political in order to do it effectively.
Matt Grossmann: So part of your evidence is from survey experiments where you try to distinguish between how candidates could signal their affiliation via social ties, via political connections, or via personal sacrifice. So tell us mechanically how you’re able to distinguish between those messages and what you find.
Julian Wamble: Sure. So I make an argument that I focus on two different kinds of signals. So the first one is a personal sacrifice signal. I draw a lot on signaling theory, in which there are signalers which are politicians, and then there are receivers which are black voters. And then there are signals that are used as a way to communicate underlying information. And so in signaling theory, they often use the case of if you apply for a job and you may not be able to inherently communicate your ability to do the jobs requirements, but that your education provides some evidence and some underlying, unspoken information about your ability to do the job. And in that same way, I argue that the signals used by politicians are meant to communicate some level of commitment, which is the expectation that black voters have of those individuals seeking to represent them.
And so I argue that there’s personal sacrifice, which is one where politicians are invoking something that they’ve already done that has put their wellbeing in jeopardy. So I operationalize that in two different ways. So the first one is a financial sacrifice, where a politician has given up their financial wellbeing in some regard to help the group. So I draw on examples from Cory Booker, again, who talks about living in the projects of Newark despite the fact that he was making enough money as a senator to be able to live elsewhere. I also think about Obama, who part of his lore was making $10,000 a year and driving a car that had a hole in it while he was a community organizer, despite the fact that he had the degrees and the pedigree to be able to be working at a much more high paying job.
And so in that, I argue that, or I put forth in the experimental design a claim that the candidate has given up their job at a prominent law firm as a way to work with civil rights organizations to help black individuals. And this is, again, showing us two things. One, that this is something that they’ve already done for the group and that they’re having a willingness to sacrifice something that is meaningful, like their financial wellbeing for the group. And then another way that I operationalize this is by focusing on what I call physical sacrifice, which looks very similar to the sacrifices of the Civil Rights Movement or even the Black Lives Matter Movement, where we see a politician talking about the fact that they have protested and been hit by rubber bullets and tear gas in an attempt to bring more equity to the black community.
And this one is one of the tenets of signaling theory: is this perception of cost. And this one is what I would argue is the more costly one. Because while financial sacrifice is meaningful in a lot of ways, physical sacrifice is extremely meaningful and resonates a lot with black voters, many of whom recognize the Civil Rights Movement and the sacrifices of those individuals who are part of that movement as being integral to their inclusion into political spaces by way of voting. And so in both of these signaling, these personal sacrifice signals, we see an invocation of the past to show something, to show what I call a realized commitment. So this is to say that if the underlying information is commitment, both of these signals convey an idea that the politician has already done the thing.
They’ve already met the expectation of black voters in terms of proving their willingness to put the group’s interest above their own. And they’re doing it in such costly ways that I argue that this is a very effective way to show this commitment. But everyone can’t do that for one reason or another. And so I argue that there are these social connection signals wherein individuals connect themselves to institutions, individuals, or symbols that are meaningful and important to the black community. And these signals communicate two different things. One is a potential commitment. So there’s no invocation of what they’ve already done for the group. They’re not communicating that. But what they can do is show that they are willing and potentially are likely to place the interest of the group first above their own prestige. But what’s also important about that, right, is, again, connecting the work back to steadfast Democrats is that black people want to know that you can be held accountable.
They want to know that if you deviate from a promise that you’ve made about prioritizing the group’s interest, that they can hold you accountable in some way. And so these social connection treatments and the social connection signals are ones where not only are you invoking a potential commitment, but you’re also communicating an ability to be held accountable to the group. And so I operationalize that by the invocation of one’s family. So I draw on Bill de Blasio, and Obama who both of whom relied a lot on their families, both of whom have Black American wives to talk about their experiences and connect their own experiences to that of their black families as a way to show not only accountability, but a greater potential to prioritize the group’s interest because they have a vested interest in it.
And then also a more traditional political way of doing it by connecting oneself to prominent institutions by way of being endorsed by institutions like the NAACP, which also communicates this sense of, I’m connected to this organization that has worked on behalf of the group for a very long time. Simultaneously, if I don’t do what I’m promising, I will lose that endorsement. And so then there’s an invocation of costs there as well.
Matt Grossmann: So some of the most seemingly effective messages invoke these personal sacrifices, but they are similar to less racialized messages that politicians have relied on for a long time. Talking about the lowest class background that they can muster, even if it’s from their grandparents or things that they have done that they have given up, wealth or esteem, to do something on behalf of the community. So differentiate the racialized group message that you have in mind from that history, and to what extent are these just popular messages that would appeal to all voters versus specifically targeted toward Black Americans?
Julian Wamble: Sure. I think everyone wants to know, no matter where you are on life’s journey, everyone wants to know that you are willing to prioritize their interest. I think that there’s a lot of work in leadership studies that talks about people who like politicians who self-sacrifice. I think what sets black people apart is the connection between self-sacrifice and political efficacy. There’s a historical narrative that is derived both from the reconstruction era where black politicians or black individuals who were chosen by their community to represent them in state houses, in Congress during the reconstruction era were having to navigate staying alive long enough to do these things. And even in black voters themselves who were trying and working hard to navigate a political space, particularly in the south, that while legally was accessible to them, socially, individuals were working very hard to deny them that access.
And so there was a lot of sacrifice that went into simply engaging in politics. And we saw this, and we see this again from reconstruction all the way through to the end of the modern Civil Rights Movement. And so I think what’s specific about what black voters are looking for is they want it to be specific to them. Because I think when we think about this particular kind of political racial group, we’re talking about a group of people whose political power has always been recognized but has also been pandered to in ways that have led to them supporting individuals who have in no way fulfilled the promises that they have made. And so black voters want a sure thing in a way that, I think, and the way that they go about securing that sure thing, and by sure thing, I mean, they want to know that when you say that you’re going to do something or you say that you’re committed, that it’s actually true.
And so the way that they go about ensuring that is by looking for very specific kinds of sacrifice. So especially because the kind of sacrifice that they’re looking for is sacrifice that they have either seen, or heard, or experienced that has led to very specific political outcomes for them. And so while, yes, I would argue that most people want someone who is willing to make these sacrifices. Black people have a very specific historical understanding of what those sacrifices look like and what they can do in a way that I think is potentially different for a lot of other racial, and political identity groups that black people want a very specific, or they want a level of specificity. And if they don’t get it, you won’t get that support. And I think a lot of, like Bernie Sanders, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement and talked a lot about it, but because he is a white man, and that’s not a narrative that black people tend to hear, what ended up happening is even though he invoked his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, many black people did not believe him.
And so people literally went and combed archives to find pictures of him to prove his involvement. And even then, when asked about this, the late John Lewis said, oh, I didn’t see him there. And that completely undermined Bernie Sanders’ claim to the sacrifices that he made. And so, again, we’re dealing with a very shrewd population of people who want unequivocable evidence of the fact that you are going to or have placed the group’s interest above your own prestige. And that evidence has to be rock solid. And so other sacrifices that you’ve made for other groups is not going to resonate the same way because there’s such a high level of skepticism and distrust within the black community that I think is warranted given the history of black political engagement.
And so I think that that’s what sets them apart from other groups who may still want something that looks similar to community commitment, but the historical grounding of the expectations that black people have. And as a result of that grounding, what it is that they expect to see is something that I think is what sets them apart from other people.
Matt Grossmann: So if black voters want this group specific commitment and prioritization, that raises the possibility that there’ll be a trade-off when presenting that message to white voters or other non-black voters. And certainly black candidates and consultants advising black candidates have often seen that as a potential trade-off that justifies trying to racialize these campaigns. So to what extent is that trade-off real, that the messages that appeal most to black voters will at least not help them with white voters, if not actually turn them off? And how have candidates successfully towed that line?
Julian Wamble: I think it’s absolutely real, and I think that this is something that black voters are aware of. In my data from my dissertation, I asked my respondents, based on what you’ve seen, how likely do you think this candidate is to get support from white voters? And what I find is that black voters, personal sacrifice is the most effective at getting strong support from black voters. But it is also the treatment where, particularly the physical sacrifice is the costliest where black voters recognize that white individuals are going to be less likely to support that candidate. So there’s a very clear understanding on the part of black voters and of black politicians. And so I think towing that line is very specific. I think that the way that we see many do this is invoking, and I should preface this by saying that my goal in my next iteration of work is to dive into this more specifically, and really think about how do you tow that line? And so what I think we see is the invocation of these social connections more than we would see personal sacrifice.
And I think that we see an invocation of connections that are very black specific, but don’t always resonate with white voters in the same way. So it’s like a secret knock on a door, if you will. So the invocation of a church, that one goes to individuals who have gone to historically black colleges or universities, often talk about this in very explicit terms, but that may not resonate or signal the same thing to white voters as it would to black voters. Institutions like a fraternity or sorority that is kind of historically understood within the black community, we saw this. Kamala Harris did this very often. She talked about her time at Howard. She talked about her time growing up in Oakland. She spent a lot of time talking about the fact that she is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. So that these are things that carry meaning within the black community and also communicate, I would argue, some level of connection to the group in meaningful ways, but don’t necessarily have the same level of potential of isolating white voters. So I think that that’s the way that the line is towed.
Now that’s theoretical. I have don’t have any data to tell me whether or not it’s actually effective. Just standby, I’m working on it, but I do think that there is something about the more subtle signals or queues that black people can pick up on and kind of derive some meaning from that won’t necessarily feed into the existing stereotypes that scholarship tells us that white people have about black politicians. And I think that that’s really what is trying to be avoided, but I also wonder, in this very highly polarized time that we find ourselves in terms of partisanship, about the necessity of doing that now. If we think about the 2020 Democratic primary, I’ve never seen such racialized appeals being made. I mean we were talking about reparations, which is kind of aggressive, and it was part of almost every candidate’s main campaign. This wasn’t just kind of targeted to black voters. They were talking about this broadly.
And it might have been because we were coming out of a moment of high amounts of racial unrest, but simultaneously we saw both white and black politicians being very race forward, particularly black forward in their conversations about what it is that they were going to do. And I think … so this leads to other questions about whether or not there’s been a shift amongst, in particular, white Democrats. There’s the work from [inaudible 00:34:47], Spencer Piston that tells us that for Obama, he lost white support because of his race. And there are questions about whether or not that is still the case in a time where it is so explicitly racial and whether or not white Democrats and white liberals are more willing and more positively responsive to some of these signals that may have historically been seen as kind of ostracizing or isolating. So those are questions that I have because I think this last Democratic primary, and I think even in Biden’s administration right now, we’re seeing outrageously explicit racial rhetoric in ways that we’ve not seen, at least in my lifetime, to the degree that we’re seeing it now.
So there are questions about whether or not black politicians have to tow that line or have to be de-racialized. And there is a book by Christopher Stout that talks about the kind of growing lack of necessity to de-racialize one’s campaigns. So I think that what we may be seeing in this contemporary moment is a movement away from that, but I do think that that doesn’t mean that there can be such a strong reliance on the strongest signals. I do think that those things can still be very isolating. So there still has to be a balance. It just may not be de-racialized or go full tilt. It can be something that kind of sits in the middle, and it’s just not clear to me as of yet what that middle ground looks like.
Matt Grossmann: So black voters are not only considering how they’ll react to the messages, but strategically considering how other voter groups are responding to the same messages. So it sounds like that this might be different considerations in primaries versus general elections, and might also change with the electorate. So just in primary terms, when Jesse Jackson was running for president, he could be assumed to sort of be not just the black deferred candidate, but the most liberal candidate. And the other voters in the Democratic Party could be assumed to be more conservative than the black electorate. That’s not true anymore. So in the last election, the white voters in the Democratic primary were not necessarily more conservative than the black voters. And we’ve had the rise of white liberals in the Democratic coalition, partly just because the white conservatives have left the Democratic coalition, but also because there’s a rise of a real Sanders’ wing. So I guess how are black voters thinking about themselves in the Democratic Party Coalition given that they are moving from the clear left flank to maybe an intermediary period, to perhaps the right flank of the Democratic Party primary?
Julian Wamble: I think that for a lot of black voters, there is an understanding, or a perception I should say, of what their understanding of the kind of rank and file white voter is going to do in the general, I think. And to that end, I think that that understanding leads particularly older black voters to, in certain contexts, be less inclined to go as far left as I think as possible for them to go. I think that there’s a very clear understanding of particularly … and I don’t want to use the 2020 election as the kind of metric for this because that election is not generalizable, but I do think that there is something about the collective nature with which we saw many black voters, particularly middle-aged and older black voters kind of rally around Biden with the belief that it was going to be him who would be able to beat Trump.
And I think that while yes, there is this kind of growing population of white liberals, and simultaneously I think there is a stronger kind of growing population of younger black liberals. So I think that some of this is obviously kind of defined by generation. What the work of Ishmael and Cheryl tells us, particularly in terms of democratic partisanship, is that even in the kind of space of ideological divide, even within the black community, when push comes to shove, when the consensus is made, most black people are going to follow what the kind of racial group is doing as a whole. And I think that that’s what separates them in a lot of ways from what white liberals do in that … and I think we saw this a lot in the last Democratic primary, and we’ve seen it in others where there’s a coalescence around one person amongst black voters, and then there’s kind of a lot of variation amongst white Democrats.
So I think that while white liberals are maybe moving further left in some cases, in some kind of context, I think what black voters are … in their assessment of the political space that they find themselves in, I think black voters always have an eye on the perception of who is going to be able to win the general election. And in that, trying to optimize their own politics, their own political positionality. And I think Biden offered them both of those things. Here’s a politician who was at least portrayed in a lot of ways to be able to beat Trump while simultaneously having a very strong connection to the black community on a number of dimensions, particularly having served as vice president to the first black President of the United States for eight years. So I think that part of black peoples’ calculus is a recognition of kind of what’s to come in the general election and what they can get out of a politician, while also optimizing the position of not having a Republican become president, governor, senator, whatever.
So I think their eye is less on the growing shifts within the white electorate, particularly I think as black voters become more and more aware. And maybe not even black voters, but particularly as politicians become more and more aware of the power and importance of black voters, which then I think empowers black voters to assert themselves like we saw in 2020, where they change the tide of the Democratic primary. I think that that suggests that there’s a very clear understanding that no, if we want to do something, if you want to win, you need us, and we know that. And so white voters can be as liberal as they want to be, but at the end of the day, the disparate ideological nature of the white voting block can’t compete with the strong cohesive power of a black voting block. And I think black voters are extremely aware of that and employ that understanding very, very strategically. And I think we will continue to see that because I think politicians are going to lean into this recognition as well.
Matt Grossmann: So as you say, black voters were accurately and widely credited with Joe Biden’s primary win, and that is going to impact how candidates behave next time, and also mechanically, because Biden has moved South Carolina to be the first state which not only has a predominantly black democratic electorate, but a more older and more conservative one than some other states’ black electorates. So how are candidates going to respond to that positioning and kind of the lure of what happened this time?
Julian Wamble: I think that we’re going to see a lot more community commitment signals, and I think we’re going to see them a lot earlier in campaigns, because they’re going to need them. And I think what also is clear is that I think white voters are also going to be kind of paying much more attention to what happens in South Carolina and what is happening with black voters, which isn’t to say that they are going to be necessarily happy about the results. I think when Biden won South Carolina, I remember distinctly a lot of white liberals being very displeased with the results and asking a lot of questions about why this choice was the one that was made. And I think that we’re going to see a lot of politicians really hyping up their connection to the black community, really kind of amping up their signals of commitment to the group, I think because now it’s necessary.
Because now in order to gain that level of viability, you have to make it over the hurdle of black voters, who I would argue have the highest hurdle of democratic voters, because they not only want to know what you’re going to do as Democrats, but they want to know what you’re going to do for them and they are extremely skeptical and much less inclined to believe and buy into pandering in the same way. And if the results of my work are any indication, the bar of proof and the burden of evidence is very high. So that means that a lot of lip service is not going to do the same amount of work as it may have done even 20 years ago. And now to have moved them to be at the front of the line will mean that politicians really have to be strategic about how they go about communicating and meeting the expectation of commitment that black voters have.
Matt Grossmann: So black voters, of course, voted against Trump in very large numbers in both elections, but there was some lack of movement against Trump that some expected in 2016 and then in 2020, certainly if you look at compared to movement among the white electorate, there was either less movement towards Democrats among the black electorate, or even in some cases geographic and vote choice evidence that black voters might have slightly moved toward Trump. So why is it that black voters have not been repelled by Trump, or at least the swing black voters have not been as repelled by Trump as some commentators expected and as white Democrats expected? And is there any evidence that this is part of a broader kind of slow, long-term peeling off of the most conservative black voters?
Julian Wamble: So I think what’s important about this is that this distinction is not … it’s gendered. So a lot of support for Trump in both 2016 and 2020 was driven by black men. I think if we look at a lot of the exit polls, we see that black women are showing up in the high nineties percentile. And so they are much more likely to support Democratic politicians than black men. And in work that I am doing with Cheryl Laird, we look at this specifically not just in the Trump elections, but just over time. And what we see is that consistently, except for 2008, black women are much more likely to support Democratic candidates than black men. And that black men are much more likely to be supportive, or some black men are much more likely to be supportive of Republican candidates, and that a lot of this is driven by, as she and Ishmael argue in Steadfast Democrats, driven by their social networks. And we find that there’s a higher percentage of black men who whose social networks are not solely black, and that those individuals are much more likely to be influenced by that, than black women.
And so for Trump, I think that what we see is a lot of this is driven by black men. And I think what’s important for us to recall about Trump is that he’s not just some kind of random Republican person. He is a very public personality, who has been known in the black community for decades. There are rap songs that are about this man. And so his place in the black community is one that is very specific, because he has played such a very specific role in terms of this kind of work-hard-make-money narrative. And that was going on through the ’90s and the early aughts. He’s also someone who, again, during his time on The Apprentice, kind of sold a very similar kind of very economic-based narrative, which we know through gender and politics literature, is something that tends to be something that resonates more with men than women.
And so I am hesitant to claim that what we’ve seen for him in terms of the peeling off of black voters towards Republicans, is something that is a trend that will continue. I think we’d need to see it with someone who is not him, before I would be willing to stake a claim that black men are moving in ways that are drastically different than what we’ve seen historically. Because I think even across elections before Trump, again, except for 2008, where black men and black women were pretty much tied in terms of the percentage of individuals who voted for Obama over McCain. But in 2012 we saw the divide come back and we saw black women be more likely to vote for Obama than black men. And again, we’re talking about a small percentage here, we’re not talking about a massive number of black men who are defecting.
And I think part of the reason why this resonates so much is because we tend to think about black voters in such a kind of monolithic way, that it’s rare that we see data that disaggregates by gender. And I think if we do that, we do see the prevalence of a gendered split that has been going on since the ’70s. And so that this is not a new phenomena, insofar that it is one that is often un-discussed. Because when we talk about the black electorate, we talk about the black electorate and not necessarily the gendered nuances that go on inside of those things. And so Cheryl and I have a paper that is currently under review, that engages with this particular idea and are hoping at some point to kind of write a book manuscript that kind of focuses more on black women, but also speaks to what we see in the behavior of black men as it pertains to their relationship with the Republican Party historically, and also maybe be able to project out what it means for the future.
Matt Grossmann: So I’ll make a little bit more of a case that it could be a trend, and you can respond. So at the point that our politics is quite ideological on both sides now and black voters are still voting for Democrats in incredibly large margins, that sort of means that the marginal black voter, the swing black voter is going to be more conservative than the swing white voter on a variety of issues, as well as self-identification. And the least likely Democratic black voter might kind of take the other social affiliations of the kinds of voters that have been moving towards Republicans. They might be richer but less educated. They might be less directly infused in the black community. So to what extent is there kind of a long-term opportunity for Republicans among swing black voters? The messages that you’ve been giving don’t seem to be that very easy for Republicans to do, but maybe there is a series of messages that would work with black?
Julian Wamble: I think that if we consider how black voters arrive at their partisanship, by way of this kind of social avenue, and in reality that what we saw in steadfast Democrats is that the people who are the most constrained by social sanctions are people who hold those more conservative views. And what we find both in Steadfast Democrats and in the article in the Journal of Politics that I did with Cheryl Ishmael and Kareem McConaughey, is that if being black is something that is important to you, regardless of your ideological lean, you are more likely to be susceptible to the sanctions and the pressure placed upon you by black people around you. Simultaneously, though, I think it stands to reason that you are also more likely to be put off by the kind of very strong and undeniable racially problematic language of the Republican Party.
So that, while yes, I think there are going to be kind of the black swing voters who may ideologically align more with Republicans, I think the percentage of those individuals who would ultimately go to the Republican Party would be even smaller, because they would have to overcome the socialized and racial kind of hurdle of what it would mean for them to make that choice. Which isn’t to say that that number isn’t growing, although by how much isn’t clear. And I think it is difficult to know, because I think Trump is such an anomaly in a lot of ways that at least for me, I would want to see this effect with someone else, particularly a white male Republican. Because I think there are arguments to be made about Herschel Walker in Georgia and what that meant.
So I think there are arguments to be made about that. But I do think that there is an additional hurdle to overcome that is more than just ideological for that kind black swing voter. And I think that, that hurdle is the one that is the most difficult to overcome intrinsically for those individuals for whom kind of being black and being seen positively by other black people is important.
Matt Grossmann: So one place this ideological debate has been prominent is in criminal justice messaging, where of course black Americans have been disproportionately affected by mass policing and mass incarceration, but are also disproportionately affected by violent crime. And young black activists have been instrumental in moving criminal justice reform along, and even more liberal positions on criminal justice and policing, that some others have said has turned off another subset of older more conservative black voters. So you’ve talked about this generational divide and ideological divide among black voters. So kind of tell us how you’re thinking about that divide, especially when it comes to criminal justice messaging, and how that kind of plays into what black voters want to hear from politicians?
Julian Wamble: I think that in this regard, younger black voters are much less inclined to lean into the kind of more traditional, some would call it conservative, more like respectability politics, which is kind of a more of a potentially go along to get along, or more of a sense of working within the system to fix the system. And I think that as time has gone on, there is a much more kind of clear understanding amongst the more liberal, the younger population, that how can you work within a system that is inherently and fundamentally kind of flawed by design. And so I think that part of the ideological debate is not, it is interestingly not a new one. This debate about how to go about bringing about change has been one that has been happening within the echelons of the black community for centuries, about how does one bring about change. And it tends to be a very similar kind of generational divide.
So if we think about even during the Civil Rights Movement, the freedom writers were young people, a lot of the kind of protests and things that were happening, were happening on college campuses and being led by college students. And so this generational divide that we’re seeing here, I think in this particular contemporary moment, is really just another iteration of what we have seen within the black community over generations. And so I think that what politicians are going to have to do is what politicians have done in the past, in terms of making a choice about who it is that you are going to want to appeal to. And I think if history is any indication, what is clear is that the younger generation of black activists will not let up.
And I think what else is different now than even in the most recent generational iteration of this, is that we live in an age where the flaws of the kind of policing structure are so apparent and made apparent to us on TikTok, on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter, over and over and over again, that it’s becoming harder and harder, I think, for politicians to avoid having to have these conversations.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science Of Politics is available biweekly from the Scannon Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossman. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next linked on our website, racial Stereotypes and Voting for Obama and Trump. Will Trump Anger Motivate Black Turnout? Why Are Black Conservatives Still Democrats? How Presidential Debates Influence Voters, and A Century Of Votes For Women? Thanks to Julian Wamble for joining me. Please check out We Choose You and then listen in next time.