Many African-Americans see themselves as conservatives and hold conservative policy positions. But black voters overwhelmingly identify as Democrats and vote for Democratic candidates. Why can’t Republicans increase their black voter support despite rising conservatism? Ismail White and Chryl Laird find that African-Americans live in segregated social networks that enforce a norm of Democratic voting. Black voters are more supportive of Republicans when they do not feel social pressure. Tasha Philpot finds that black conservatism is meaningful and influential in policy views, but that black partisanship is based more on shared group identity. Black voters have varied ideologies, but agree on the concerns most important to vote choice. They agree that black partisanship challenges our ideas about ideological polarization.
Studies: Steadfast Democrats; Conservative but Not Republican
Interviews: Ismail White, Duke University; Chryl Laird, Bowdoin College; Tasha Philpot, University of Texas
Matt Grossmann: This week on The Science of Politics, why are black conservatives still Democrats? For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Many African Americans see themselves as conservatives and hold conservative policy opinions. So, why do black voters overwhelmingly identify as Democrats and vote for Democratic candidates? Do Republicans have any chance to increase their black voter support? And what can Democrats do to motivate black turnout?
Today, I talk to Ismail White of Duke University and Chryl Laird of Bowdoin College about their Princeton book, Steadfast Democrats. They find that African Americans live in segregated communities and social networks that enforce a norm of democratic voting. Black voters are more supportive of republicans outside of these context of strong social pressure. I also talk to Tasha Philpot of the University of Texas about her Cambridge book, Conservative but Not Republican. She finds that black conservatism is meaningful and influential in policy attitudes but that partisanship is based more on shared group identity. Black attitudes have varied attitudes on issues and ideologies, but not those that promote vote choice.
They agree that African Americans have diverse political views despite their unified partisanship. White says there’s diversity even on racial issues, so unanimity there can’t be the full explanation.
Ismail White: I think the current conventional wisdom is sort of like race explains everything for African Americans. And the reality is that for African Americans, they have lots of different opinions about race. In fact, blacks are much more unified in their partisanship then they are of many race issues. For example, affirmative action. Only about 60% of blacks would state support for affirmative action policy whereas over 80% of African Americans identify with the democratic party. And this was sort of one of the puzzles that we were trying to work out throughout the book. That’s the conventional wisdom.
And the academic wisdom is not all that different in some ways. The conventional explanation that we’ve had within political science has been that racial … The extent to which black identify with or see some connection between themselves and the racial group explains the high levels of black political unity. And one of the most prominent or well known explanations is something called link fate, which is the idea that what happens to blacks has something to do with … What happens to blacks of the group might have something to do with what happens to your individual personal circumstance. And that explanation has often been offered as the reason blacks exhibit unified political behavior.
With the book, we sought to challenge both those conventions. Our take on the role that race plays in black partisanship in particular … We believe it’s a bit more complicated. We believe that blacks have various opinions on many types of issues. In fact, as we’ll discuss more, I’m sure, is that black Americans tend to be fairly conservative, even, on lots of issues including some racial issues. How does that lead to democratic partisanship? What we argue in the book is that there’s a sense among black Americans or a notion among black Americans that group solidarity is important.
And this notion, we believe, has its origins in the Civil Rights Movement. Not the notion they have group solidarity is important; group solidarity in party politics is important. And that this idea that … This ability of black Americans to take this experience from the 1960s and the role that the democratic party played in helping black Americans gain these political rights, black Americans see that as an empowerment in some sense. In other words, they see it as empowering that they can leverage this solidarity to get some voice within a system based on majority rule.
You can see this in the current primary, for example. The reason issues like reparations, criminal justice reform are being discussed is because of black’s disproportionate democratic party membership. Again, you can imagine if blacks were equally distributed across the parties in the same way as white Americans, there’d be no real intensive on the part of either party to discuss these issues. The reason 90% of black Americans support the democratic party is because they have been empowered through that support. And what racialized social constraint, this idea we offer in the book, does is helps to maintain that democratic party support over time.
Matt Grossmann: And Philpot says the diversity in black political thought often doesn’t show up in voting.
Tasha Philpot: The most important finding is that there’s quite a bit of heterogeneity among black voters that often gets masked when we just look at the outcomes of elections. Elections, ultimately, are binary choices for the republican and the democratic party. And so, you really don’t get a sense of what the intensity of the choice is, but if you take a step back and look at black public opinion and all of the elements that go into casting a ballot, you then see that there is quite a bit of difference amongst African Americans in their orientation towards politics.
And I look specifically at ideological orientation and even more specifically towards the placement of African Americans on … Or their self-identification on the liberal/conservative continuum. And what we see is that there’s been a growing number of African Americans willing to self-identify as conservative but unlike the relationship between ideology and party identification among whites, you don’t see a corresponding increase in the number of African American self-identifying as republican.
I look at why this is the case and I find that African Americans are conservative along a number of dimensions, particularly when it comes to religion. But alternately, their sense of group identity and black consciousness restricts the extent to which that ideological self-identification gets translated into their party identification.
Matt Grossmann: They also agree that African Americans have become less liberal over time. White says they’re now more moderate.
Ismail White: Black conservatism has not risen as much as blacks have become much more moderate in their support since the 1960s on all sorts of issues. I think in the 1960s … In the book, we demonstrate that about 80% of blacks were supporting issues like government redistribution of wealth and policies such as the need to provide specific assistance directed towards African Americans. Both those things, according to the American National Elections Study, has support among black Americans has decreased significantly. Up to today, it’s probably much closer to 50%.
Why has black American’s support changed over time? I think the simply answer is that the lives have black Americans have changed significantly over that time. Black Americans are, to some extent, more integrated into American society. They’re becoming significantly more economically polarized, as you will see in the book as well. And I think those things have created a different set of incentives for many African Americans. And incentives about … That sort of pushed them towards supporting more of conservative policies. But again, what we show in the book is that despite that support, it hasn’t translated like you would expect into the levels of republican party identification that you would observe among white Americans.
Matt Grossmann: And Philpot says black conservative identification is growing, but hasn’t translated politically.
Tasha Philpot: I think part of it is the willingness to self-identify as conservative and to allow for that conservative to mean different things among African Americans, specifically as it relates to religion. African Americans are the most religious group in the United States. It’s the ability to articulate that when it comes to whether or not they’re going to place themselves on the liberal/conservative continuum and identify as conservative. Why is it growing? Again, I think it’s the willingness as well as the same things that grow conservatism among whites.
Typically, you see more affluent whites being more conservative. And so, as there’s more heterogeneity in the socioeconomic backgrounds of African Americans, you see a similar rise in conservatism. It’s still less than half of African Americans that identify as conservative. We’re not talking about the overwhelming number of African Americans, nevertheless.
What that means for the Trump administration? Certainly, we see based on presidential approval ratings that it has not translated into support for the republican party. And a lot of it has to do with the heightened racial tension that we’ve been experiencing over the last four years. You see a lot of racial rhetoric being used, not just among Donald Trump but other republicans. And of course, the rise in white nationalist groups, neo Nazis, the Klan that have endorsed the republican party and have become tightly aligned with the republican party in the eyes of African Americans, which ultimately would prevent blacks from voting republican even if they agree with the republican party on a number of other dimensions.
Matt Grossmann: Why do black conservatives remain democrats? Laird says their explanation focuses on black social networks constraining black voters.
Chryl Laird: The biggest takeaway from the book is that we argue that blacks are able to maintain democratic partisanship over time and such strong loyalty to the democratic party over time through social networks. Understandings of how African Americans participate in politics has often focused on other explanations for how that happens and we argue that we need to move beyond just individual understandings of it and that actually, the social aspect of how people decide on their politics matters a lot. And in fact, when we see some sort of behavior like we observe for African Americans, we need to consider how group dynamics and how the focus on trying to improve the status of the group in society would then lead to a group behavior that is, then, enforced by the group itself.
Matt Grossmann: Philpot says many political views are seen in a racialized context for African Americans.
Tasha Philpot: Even though the different dimensions of ideology cover different realms, what I noticed was that you see an interpretation of those realms still being viewed through a racialized lens. One of the most interesting findings that come out of the book is blacks orientation towards the military and how blacks are very conservative around military dimensions but the military dimension for African Americans actually has a different effect on ideological self-identification. And part of that is because it’s not just about government spending on military and military occupation in different countries, but it has to do with the historic role of the military for the black community.
In this modern day, all voluntary force we see that African Americans, who are 13% of the population in the United States, are overrepresented in the military. And historically, the military served as not just a way of proving the worthiness of citizenship for African Americans, but also served as one of the few areas where blacks could be in Ameritocracy with the structure of the military and almost on equal footing as much as you could be. Of course, the military had historically been segregated as blacks could be in any other profession.
Matt Grossmann: Laird and White built from an interest in linked fate to a wider project on the Obama presidency.
Chryl Laird: It started off as a project that was going to be a paper. The book has developed subsequently from that. We have a piece from 2014 in The American Political Science Review. Ismail was a faculty member at Ohio State University at the time and I was a graduate student working on my dissertation. I was ABD. And we decided that since we both were doing work that was similar … I actually do other work that focuses on linked fate and understanding where we can see linked fate being applied in black politics beyond something just than partisanship and more looking at some of the dynamic context that shape people’s attitudes about a linked fate with the group.
And Ismail was doing his own work on various projects and was coming into this. And so, we decided to put our minds together and attempt to try to answer this question that we thought was very interesting and engaging about black partisanship and felt that the previous explanations that we had in the literature just didn’t provide us the needed insight into the dynamics that were at play, especially with the idea that people socially sanction.
And we’re also in the midst, at that time, of the presidency of Barack Obama so it provided us with a great opportunity to be able to test our theory in a very novel way because we could use that election as a means to try to gather that information. We could leverage the opportunity of having a black president as one of the highest examples when Ismail talks about this idea of black empowerment that this is one of those moments where the collective decision making of deciding to use the group collectively as a means to gain power in a majority system. This is the realizing of that. If black empowerment and gaining access to politics is something that black people are trying to do through this collective behavior, Barack Obama is the clear realization of it at the highest levels.
Matt Grossmann: Philpot built on her work on the role of African Americans in the party system.
Tasha Philpot: During the process by which I was writing my first book, I had a lot of unanswered questions that I thought still needed to be answered but wasn’t quite relevant to that book. And one of them really ultimately guiding the research and guiding all of my research is, to what extent or under what circumstances will African Americans live in a two-party system?
From the beginning of the modern day two-party system, African Americans essentially have functioned in a one party system. And often during election cycles we hear this notion that African Americans are uninformed voters, that they are clinging to one party out of loyalty. And really what I wanted to show is that there’s quite a bit of cognitive effort exerted in thinking about which party is best for African Americans among African Americans. And that a lot of it has to do with the way the parties have functioned with respect to their racial policies and their rhetoric.
Matt Grossmann: Laird and White have a lot of evidence for racialized social constraint. Laird says race of interviewer effects are a stark test of social pressure.
Chryl Laird: Well one of the things that we were able to do is use race of the interviewer as somewhat of a proxy, basically a stand in, for trying to understand social pressure. And so, in this case, what we were able to do with it is that we decided to look at data from the American National Election Study and the General Social Survey, large data samples that have been taken over time that allow us to look at black individuals and see how they respond in terms of the reporting of partisanship in the presence of a face-to-face interview of either a white interviewer or a black interviewer.
And in the case of the 2012 National Election Study, there was an online survey opportunity. So then we were able to say, “Okay, if we’re trying to understand how partisanship is maintained, one of the things that we want to be able to understand is how people then respond to the social pressure presence.” So with the face-to-face interviews, we were able to glean that and see how African Americans responded.
And so in terms of being in the presence doing an online survey, not having any face-to-face time with an interviewer, individuals reported certain levels of partisanship. And then African Americans who were in the presence of an African American interviewer reported higher levels of partisanship comparatively. And then also in the space when there was a white interviewer, that partisanship to the democratic party was lower.
So we conclude from that data and in the magnitude in which we find these findings, which is, we see increases in reporting within at least double in the difference size between these situations of a black interviewer over a white interviewer, that this concludes to us a signaling that is being understood by blacks, that the interviewer’s presence as African American is creating some sort of pressure.
This was a conservative test, but the fact that we were able to find it not only in face-to-face interviews, but we were also able to find it in situations of even phone surveys where we don’t have an online situation but people were hearing an individual and were able to kind of determine the person’s race through their voice, which there’s research on that to show that people make those racial determinations, that that was significant because that seems to say that we have evidence that this is something, even at the conservative level, of something like the interviewer of having an effect on how people are reporting their partisanship.
And from there, then we extrapolate further on that through experimental designs and also assessing people’s views on how they think even family members or people in their social network would view their decision-making in terms of their policy decisions, about support, for instance, for Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. And all of that tying back in again to the idea that social pressure really does matter.
Matt Grossmann: Experimental tests based on campaign donations also show effects of social pressure.
Chryl Laird: We designed some experiments that would create social constraints, so this concept that we’ve come up with. And one of the ways in which we did this, we went to a historically black college and we set up an experiment opportunity where we basically created an incentive for people to go against what is understood as the group norm. So in this case, essentially what we did was that we told them that we were working in collaboration with an organization that was providing people with an opportunity to do campaign donations and we were actually giving them the money to do so. And that they were supposed to decide how they were going to divide up this money that we were giving them to do a campaign donation. And they could either do it to the Mitt Romney or the Obama campaign but in different situations.
So in different circumstances, one group would be assigned to do that decision-making absent any type of incentive that would alter their political decision-making. So we expect them to basically be our baseline. So what would someone do with this money not knowing anything else outside of what they typically would do with their politics and which candidates they would support? And so in that case, we would have expected that people would donate most of that money to Barack Obama.
Then we had another scenario for another group where individuals were given the same political decision and how to divvy up basically the hundred dollars and told them that for every $10 that they decided to give to one of the campaigns, they may get a dollar for themselves. But they were going to get determined that randomly, like that was going to be randomly determined by the system that we were using to decide on the campaign donation incentive.
And in this case, the incentive was always going to be done with Mitt Romney. So in that case, basically, they would be told that, “Oh, you landed in the situation where Mitt Romney is the person that if you gave some of the money to him for every $10, you would get a dollar. And that Romney is the candidate if you give those donations, that’s when you would get that dollar back for yourself.” So, that creates a self interest.
And then the third group was given that same decision. They were told they are randomly placed in a situation where the money would be given to Mitt Romney and that’s when they would get the money back for themselves if they decided to donate to him and that we would also be then putting that information into the student newspaper at the college and that that information would then be disclosed to the public, and it’s a historically black college. So the institution, we argue, is creating the social space. That would be the creation of the social pressure because now the collective, the group of people at your college would know what you have done.
And so we wanted to see, with the argument that in the two other groups, that we would be expecting for people who are now being incentivized to donate to Mitt Romney, that they are now going to have to make a decision between their self interest and their group interest. And that those who are most feeling the social pressure, so the ones in the social pressure condition would be the ones that are going to actually look more similar to the baseline group, which had no incentive at all in the decisions that they would then determine in the way that they would decide to donate the money.
And that’s basically what we find. So that basically, the social institution being the historically black college, created a pressure on individuals that when that was not present, so group two making this decision with the incentive involved in terms of their donation, they were more likely to give to Mitt Romney. They were more likely to give money to him and so that they would then be able to pocket more money.
But then those who are in the group that now is being told that, “Yeah, you can make that decision, but the campus is going to know that you did that.” They returned to levels of donations that are comparable to what we see in the group that had no incentive at all. So in that case, we argue this is an example of how social constraint works. People’s awareness of what the group thinks for African Americans will be very important for how they behave within the notion that the partisan norm is very deterministic of how we behave in politics because it’s the understood behavior. Basically, essentially to be black is to be Democrat. So to demonstrate behavior that seems to be going against that underlying norm would be problematic. And that people will act in response to that.
And so then we also decided, “Okay, well let’s expand that with another experiment that would actually take away the institutional social sanction that is an African American institution and bring it down to the individual level.” So we designed a similar experiment that we did at a Midwest college and decided here we would have African American participants be put into similar groups where they’re going to have a way in which they’re going to be doing the donation against the campaigns. But in this case, we decided to make it a one-on-one interaction.
So we got a set of individuals to be what we call Confederates and they were going to be paired with people who are going to be participating in this study. So in one case, individuals were basically… Well overall, all the people were being told, “Okay, here’s what’s happening. We have $10 where, again, we’re working with an organization and trying to provide people with a opportunity to participate in politics through campaigns and particularly donations. And we are now going to offer you here $10. And you’re going to able to go onto a room away from us and make a decision on where you want to donate the money. Do you want to donate to the Romney campaign or the Obama campaign?” And there were two boxes in the room.
Now, people who were in our baseline group, they were going to go into the room and make the decision by themselves. They would walk into the room, they were going to make the decision by themself and then they could determine if they were going to give to the campaign or they could decide not to at all and they could just pocket the money. So, no pressure was there in that group.
In the second group, people were going to be paired with an individual who is African American and then we gendered match so that we can minimize any pressure that would happen as part of kind of power dynamics as a consequence of gender. And so we had for a black woman respondent, a black woman come in and pair with them. Or if it was a black male, a black male paired with them. And they’d be told the same instructions.
But the Confederate, so the person that we have participating was told, when you enter the room, we need you to explicitly say, “I’m giving all my money to Obama.” And that person was going to be the pressure. They’re the pressure from the group. And so, again here, we see the social pressure being designed from that individual. And then the participant is supposed to then determine how they’re going to give the money after that. But the Confederate always is going to do this. So in that case, we saw a lot more people decide to donate the money to Obama and not pocket as much.
And then in the third group, we had individuals being paired with a white Confederate. So white female, white male, black respondent, or you might have had a black male respondent. In that case, the white individual’s brought in to make sure that the social pressure was racial and not a person. So if we bring in a white person, would you see the same behavior? And so that white Confederate was told to do the same thing. So they go in there and they say, “I’m going to give my money to Barack Obama.” And then we were going to see what the participant does after that and their decision.
And at that point, again, we see similar money being pocketed by the individual relative to the situation in which they had no one present with them as we do see if they are within the room with a white person. So more money gets donated to Obama when a black person is in there than the money being pocketed. And overall, very few people, I think only two individuals, actually gave any money to Mitt Romney.
So we really had to consider, then, the difference in the size of the amount of money that someone is donating of the $10 to Obama versus the amount of money that they decided to pocket. And in both of those experiments we argue are exemplifying of how social constraint works, that these social networks that African Americans are in do a lot of work to constrain behavior when it comes to an understood norm like partisanship. And this is just one test of it to a broader behavior that we see going on. So this isn’t supposed to be completely defining of it but definitely exemplifies exactly the phenomenon that we talk about in the book.
Matt Grossmann: Philpot looks more at black attitudes. She finds that social welfare views and religion drive black ideology.
Tasha Philpot: Based on prior research, I looked at dimensions that would tap into different elements of ideology including social welfare, racial considerations, military considerations, religious considerations, and social issue type considerations. And what I found is that when we correlate those dimensions with ideological self identification and party identification, we see that the most important ones for African Americans are social welfare and religion.
And the book really delves into how African Americans become oriented towards those ideological orientations and how it relates to their interaction with the government, mostly the federal government, particularly as it relates to the federal government intervening in terms of racial equality as well as disparities along economic lines.
Matt Grossmann: She sees social networks and racial consciousness interacting.
Tasha Philpot: I don’t actually see them as that different. I touch on this in the book, this idea that group consciousness has to come from somewhere. This is also expanded in Melissa Harris-Perry’s book on Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, that part of what fuels this idea of racial consciousness comes from these social networks and this reinforcement of the idea that race matters. So you see this in black churches. You see this through the black media. And certainly black social networks. Which would adhere blacks to themselves, right? So I see this, the idea of the development of group considerations as the precursor to the expression of black group consciousness.
Matt Grossmann: White says they agree with Philpot about black conservatism. But have a different view of partisanship.
Ismail White: Conservative But Not Republican is a great book. I spent a lot of time with Tasha talking about it. And I think there’s certainly room for both of us to be right here. We totally agree with Tasha that blacks likely have a different set of conservative priorities. Than say white conservatives. Where we depart is in the precise way that we think that race conditions how conservative beliefs lead to party choices. Tasha would see something like link fade as a kind of moderating variable. Which would condition the relationship between ideology and black party ID. For us, however, psychological constraints like link fade are too susceptible to rationalizations. Meaning for us, this idea that say a black conservative with high link fade. We don’t see how they couldn’t, say, find one of the many explanations Republicans offer. And you that as a means of justifying their identification with the Republican party. Right?
So if, in other words, if blacks were truly just psychologically constrained they could sort of rationalize the conflict perhaps between their racial group identification and their conservative identification. To lead them to support the Republican party. With racialized social constraint we believe provides a more parsimonious explanation in the sense that blacks may have these sort of conflicting ideas. And what helps them to sort of resolve the conflict are the sort of threat of sanctions. Or the potential rewards offered by through their social networks with other black Americans. But we totally agree with Tasha that there’s likely something to this sort of difference in black ideology. But we just see a different mechanism for maintaining Democratic partisanship over time.
Matt Grossmann: It leaves them in somewhat different predictions. White says black voters may move toward Republicans as they exit black social networks.
Ismail White: It may not change instantly. But I think we do think that over time we would observe some significant changes in African American party identification. And the reason is because of this, and in the terms of the way in racialized social constraint works. Right. This process that we sort of lay out in the book works because African American social networks… Because they exist these norms within the African American community about Democratic party support. These social networks within the black community have the ability to sort of constrain the political behavior of other black Americans. Particularly those black Americans who might have some incentive to identify with the Republican party. Right. And these would be blacks who might be conservative, right? Or who might have some financial interest in identifying as a Republican. For example, they may own a small business or something. And see the benefits of lower taxes. Right?
But to the extent that those individuals are sort of embedded within a black community, a black social network. That social network has the ability to sort of constrain behavior through either rewarding compliance or sanctioning defection. Right? In other words, to the extent that black America… That these individuals might decide to publicly support the Republican party. They would have to do that knowing that there could be some social cost to that behavior.
Well, if black Americans were more integrated into, say, white society. Particularly black Americans in the South. Right. That would mean they would have a much more politically diverse social network. And because of that those networks cause enable the kind of behavior. In other words, if you are a black conservative. And you have a diverse social network. Well maybe your black friends would be against you identifying as a Republican. But you would have a set of white friends who might be more accepting of that behavior. That is how we think racialized social… The integration could sort of lead to changes in in black partisanship.
Matt Grossmann: But Philpot still sees black voters remaining and reinforcing institutions even outside of segregated networks.
Ismail White: Even geographically moving out of a black neighborhood does not mean you become disconnected from the black community. I think of myself and other African Americans who live in the greater Austin area. That you find these black enclaves even within racially heterogeneous neighborhoods. And there’s still a reliance on historically black institutions for things like hair care. And we know that spaces like beauty shops and barber shops are where you get a lot of the discussion about race. And the reinforcement of racial ideals when it comes to politics.
Matt Grossman: They both agree that black voters have unique partisanship. Laird says that should challenge broader theories of polarization.
Chryl Laird: I think they need to take into consideration that African Americans are not a monolith. Even as we see them participate in this group based behavior of the collective behavior that they do with partisanship. Right? That they are very diverse in their politics. They are very thoughtful on various issues and things. That it’s not just kind of one way in which they are moving. And at that partisanship also is a positive partisanship. Right? So a lot of it has to do with things that have been exhibited by the party, particularly the stances on things like civil rights. Coming out of the civil rights movement, as well as, the actual emergence of black power in government at the federal level through the Democratic party within Congress. As well as within the presidency. Serving as opportunities for African Americans to decide that the partisanship leanings that they’re making make sense. Even in light of the fact that many of them have changing viewpoints over time. Right. As we show in the book with the increased economic conservatism. We see also some social conservatism that’s changing as well.
So I think we need to think about the constraints around how African Americans are understanding their space in the political system. And that that is very different from whites. While engaging with a set of assumptions and how one would act in a political structure. That is assuming a space that individual is a white individual. And that gives a lot of different things in to play for that person than it would for African Americans. And we often don’t think about that contextual factor. And then what that would do to then result in political decision making that is different.
Matt Grossmann: And Philpot say theories of polarization don’t apply well to African Americans racial considerations.
Tasha Philpot: In terms of polarization a lot of the issues where African Americans would diverge become less salient ultimately when it comes to choosing a presidential candidate in particular. And party identification. And so you wouldn’t see that polarization on those kind of macro evaluations. You’d see some more variants along other dimensions. And I think part of that, again tied to this idea of racial consciousness. Is thinking about how their personal beliefs ultimately translate into what’s best for the race. And taking, or allowing, those to be secondary to more racialized considerations.
Matt Grossmann: So might black voting behavior change? White says social constraints were larger under Obama but are still widespread.
Chryl Laird: Well, we definitely think there was probably a heightened sense of racial group, racialized social constraint during the Obama era. Because I mean given that Obama was the first black president. But we definitely believe this applies much more broadly in terms of… Just generally it’s ability to facilitate support for the Democratic party.
Ismail White: Again, as I mentioned earlier, this norm of support for the democratic party has its basis in the racial group empowerment. Right? And this idea that among black Americans it is important to maintain solidarity and support for the Democratic party. Because we get voice through our support for the Democratic party. Okay. And that is the mechanism by which the group can exert their political power and have their voice. And so I think it generally works in elections in which there is a Democrat versus a Republican. But it’s certainly the case we believe that it was probably heightened during the Obama administration. And worked much more to his advantage than perhaps other candidates.
Matt Grossmann: Philpot says Obama stimulated pride and enthusiasm. Which is hard to replicate.
Tasha Philpot: What we saw during 2008 and 2012 is unprecedented black turnout. And a lot of that has to do, not necessarily with Obama’s policies. But this idea of the history of African American struggle to even achieve the vote. Many people couldn’t even conceptualize as they were struggling as they were being beaten and murdered for trying to exercise their right to vote. That blacks would ever see a co-ethnic at the top of a major party ticket. And so what you see is a lot of pride and enthusiasm for this struggle that culminated in ultimately the election of the first black president.
It wasn’t necessarily the fact that blacks ended up being more democratic because of Obama. But what you see is more blacks being enthusiastic about the political climate. And taking that party identification and going to the polls. Two of my colleagues, Darren Shaun and Ernest McGowen and I wrote an article about how one of the things that led to that unprecedented turnout was a real concentrated effort on the part of the Obama camp to get blacks to the polls. To make sure that not only African Americans were voting in the primary. But also in the general election. So it didn’t necessarily happen organically where blacks were enthusiastic about a black candidate and got to the polls.
That it was a two prong. Right, that there was an enthusiasm. And there was a part on the Democratic party and the Obama camp to make sure that those who were most likely to vote for Obama got to the polls in the first place.
Matt Grossmann: They both see the Democratic primary as another important case. White says you can have social constraint in primaries, as well, from black voters role in the Democratic primary.
Ismail White: To the extent that it applies to the primary voting. We think it’s again, the sense among black Americans that… I think the primary voting sort of reinforces this idea. In the sense that it sends a message that blacks are to some extent valuable in this case. As you can see the candidates sort of debating issues about black Americans, like reparations. I mean, we would not hear anything about reparations where blacks not as influential a part of the Democratic party. Right?
In other words, as I mentioned earlier, if blacks were distributed like whites. More even evenly across the two parties, there would be no real incentive to discuss issues in this way by either party. Right. And so what I think the primaries often do is sort of signal the importance of the Democratic primary. Signal the importance of blacks as a constituent with constituency within the party. And thus helps to translate that into higher turnout in the general election.
Matt Grossmann: Philpot agrees that black voters do consolidate in primaries as well. Based on several cues.
Tasha Philpot: So it’s not just about picking the candidate that is as closely aligned with ideological self identification. But you have a lot of factors outside of that as well. So for instance, Joe Biden is not just a candidate that’s more moderate. But he was Obama’s vice president. And so you get that connection to what the ultimate presidential candidate would look like to he next best thing. You see, definitely a divide in generation where older African Americans are leaning more towards Joe Biden. And the younger African Americans are in more support of Bernie. But again, the bulk of voters are going to be those older voters. Which is why that has translated into larger support for Biden. And African Americans are very savvy. So not only are they looking towards someone who is more close.
So not only are they looking towards someone who is more closely aligned with them ideologically, who is more viable as a candidate, and also taking that cue as Biden being more closely aligned with Obama. And I think that many of the Democratic candidates understand that Obama serves as a good heuristic for African-Americans. You saw Bloomberg trying to associate himself with Obama through his commercials. Even Bernie Sanders has played some ads that show him interacting with Obama and being aligned somewhat with President Obama.
Matt Grossmann: Philpot and Laird both see an uphill battle for Trump in trying to win back black voters.
Tasha Philpot: I don’t think there’s anything Donald Trump could do at this point that would convince African-Americans that he’s an adequate choice for them for President. A lot of the African-Americans he chooses to be the face of his administration, have nothing to do, have no connection to the black community. There are already people who have distanced themselves from African-Americans and they’re seen as, for lack of a better term, sellouts, which again then reinforces this idea that Donald Trump isn’t sincerely reaching out to the black community. And with respect to his Superbowl ad, I think that was definitely seen as an insincere attempt at attracting black voters.
Chryl Laird: One thing is, I mean we have looked at the history of the Democratic party norm that is understood by African-Americans very strongly. It has been maintained over time. Trump didn’t do particularly better than any other Republican presidents in running and getting black support. He did get a small amount, but disproportionately. The vast majority of blacks went with the other candidates, Hillary Clinton. And in this case, I don’t see how that would’ve changed much more. I think the Trump campaign believes that some of the gestures that they have done in particular, I would say like for instance, State of the Union, was showing people receiving school vouchers by acknowledging certain African-Americans at the State of the Union for service and other things.
And even the ad for Superbowl are all signals that actually would probably do more for them to try to garner their support with white women suburban voters. Right? So if there are white women who are bothered by some of the rhetoric of the President prior, that some of the things that he said with regards to race have been seen as problematic, these might be things that make them feel better about Trump. They feel like he’s a bit more compassionate, he’s more understanding on race relations and so in fact, those appeals might work more effectively there. We also think that in terms of people within the community that it may affect, I mean there are people who are not as driven by the idea that they want to get Trump out of office and somehow look at Trump as somebody who is not that bad.
They may be less likely to turn out, might be a factor. Right? So if one was motivated to turn out in part because of partisanship and also in part because they don’t want necessarily Trump to be reelected, that this would be something that may lead to somebody saying, “Well the status quo seems fine and so I don’t need to turn out as much,” but now we are in the COVID-19 world. So that might not be the sentiment that one has about him being a good representation of the status quo.
Matt Grossmann: Philpot says other Republicans may also now be too tied to Trump to gain black support.
Tasha Philpot: One of the things that surprised me about the Republican party during these last four years is their unwillingness to stand up to Trump. I, and a lot of other people, assume that in his execution of policies as well as rhetoric, that they would have distanced themselves and said, this is not our Republican party. This is an aberration that’s tied to this one person. But the only person that really did that was Mitt Romney. And so I think there is the idea that Republicans at this point co-sign onto all of Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric and that there’s not really much point in thinking about the Republicans along other policy dimensions other than their alignment with Donald Trump.
Matt Grossmann: For the Democrats, White says they still need to use social network ties to mobilize black voters.
Ishmail White: I think the key recommendation to the Democrats from here would be to maintain field offices within black communities and hire people within those communities to work in those field offices. If you want blacks to support you, you have to get the people within their social networks to help mobilize them in terms of helping to ensure a high turnout. And I think that’s the most effective strategy. I mean, this is why these sort of local political campaigns within black communities can get turnout compared to sometimes, like the Hillary campaign. I don’t know what they were doing, but there were some questions about whether black turnout was sufficiently high in places. Now I think it was sort of unreasonable to expect the level of turnout that Barack Obama got. But I think what’s important again is to maintain field offices within black communities and have the people from those communities working in those offices mobilizing like voters.
Matt Grossmann: And Philpot agrees that Democrats need to spend time motivating turnout.
Tasha Philpot: Democratic candidates most certainly cannot take the African-American vote for granted. I think that was a mistake on the part of Hillary Clinton in 2016 without putting in significant resources into making sure African-Americans got out to vote. She was seen as less of an enthusiastic candidate and certainly with her choice of running mate, there wasn’t much to really rally against other than casting a vote against Donald Trump. So if I were to give advice for the Democratic candidate is definitely spend time in making sure that African-Americans are getting out to the vote, both in their choice of a vice presidential candidate but also their get out the vote type efforts.
Matt Grossmann: From here, Laird is looking next at the limited effects of linked fate as well as gender.
Chryl Laird: One thing that we walked away with this is that linked fate has been talked about as such a major explanatory factor for black political behavior. And it’s one of those things that we still don’t quite have an understanding on at the moment. It’s like we still kind of know that it does some stuff. It seems to be this belief that what happens to the group has an effect on the individual. For African-Americans it’s something that leads to support for African-American candidates, leads to support for racial race-based policies, at least predictively, but we still don’t really know what it does in other ways and the contextual factors that shape it. So for me, I think there’s a lot of interest in trying to understand then what is it doing since partisanship seems to not be as clear.
I think another thing that we thought about as well are some of the gender factors that we didn’t really get to focus on in the book, but we noted two, which is African American women disproportionately seem to be some of the strongest norm enforcers. So we can think of some examples that we even talk about in the texts like during reconstruction of African-Americans getting access to the franchise. But obviously at that time, that would not have included African-American women. With those women being some of the main individuals that were reinforcing at the time African-American support for Republican candidates when it came time to vote during reconstruction and being enforcers of that through oral and even physical means of doing so. And even now, when you see a situation like Roy Moore and Doug Jones in Alabama, again African-American women being very, very diligent and strategic in utilizing this collective behavior to leverage the power African-Americans to ensure that black empowerment or at least something close to that is achieved for the group.
Even if that individual themselves is an African American, at least they speak to the group interest. So it is something that I think we’ve thought about. We would need to get more data and more focus into that. And I think it would also speak to some of the questions that people often ask us about why do people think or at least believe from some cross-sectional data that African-American men are less likely to be in compliance with the partisan norm of democratic behavior and we kind of provocatively have suggested, well, they’re more likely to be in relationships or spaces that have more interracial individuals, i.e. That they would have more white people within their social space, particularly even partners. So that’s a more provocative way of discussing it, but we’re thinking about potentially going forward on some of that.
Matt Grossmann: And Philpot’s next project looks at the geography of black voters.
Tasha Philpot: I’m working on this project that looks at geographic disbursement among African-Americans and how we see this out migration of African-Americans from central cities into the suburbs and what implications that has for their public opinion and their voting behavior. The preview is very consistent by previous work, which is to say that because of social interactions and racial tension, you don’t get as much variance as you would expect among black suburban voters relative to say, white suburban voters.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. We’ve joined the Democracy Group Podcast Network and are thrilled to join some of our favorite podcasts in democracy, civic engagement and civil discourse. Visit democracygroup.org to learn more. Thanks to Ishmail White, Chryl Laird and Tasha Philpot for joining me. Please check out Steadfast Democrats and Conservative But Not Republican, and then listen in next time.
Photo Credit: Public Domain, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/photos-and-video/2012-photos