It’s certainly true that black voters support black Democratic candidates at higher rates, often in terms of both turnout and vote share. But analysis of past elections and campaigns shows that black voters have never prioritized simple descriptive representation over other factors, like party affiliation, campaign viability, candidate electability, preexisting relationships with the black community and a sense of authenticity. Sen. Barack Obama had to prove his viability by winning white Democrats in Iowa before his black support materialized, a hurdle that many black candidates, from Shirley Chisholm and Al Sharpton to Booker and Harris, have not managed to clear. As several black voters recently told the New York Times: “Representation is not enough.”
In 2016, a seven-point drop in black voter turnout was perceived to have cost Clinton the election. Political commentators often cite black voters’ “enthusiasm gap” as the primary reason for low turnout. After last month’s elections, an NBC headline claimed, “Democratic wins come with a warning sign: Low African American voter turnout,” suggesting that unless black voters are energized, Democrats cannot prevail.
Yet Trump will be fortunate to get to half of that 20 percent threshold in 2020. The 8 percent of black voters he won in 2016 was certainly more than John McCain and Mitt Romney received in 2008 and 2012 while facing Obama’s historic candidacy. Still, between 1968 and 2004, Republican presidential nominees averaged nearly 12 percent of the black vote, and Trump underperformed each one.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s support among black voters has been dismal: at 2 percent nationally in the Economist/YouGov poll and at less than 1 percent in South Carolina, where black voters are nearly two-thirds of the primary electorate. A much-publicized rationale for this lack of support, largely based on an internal campaign memo, is that black voters can’t get past the fact that Buttigieg is openly gay.