After virtually all white primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, the fate of Bernie Sanders will largely rest on his ability to appeal to black voters. Clinton’s substantial lead nationally comes on the backs of black and latino democrats. In the minority dominated South Carolina primary, Clinton maintains a 30 point lead over Sanders for the same reason.
Why don’t black americans support Sanders? The most common answer, including the one given by Sanders himself, is that they are simply unfamiliar with him. “When the African American community becomes familiar with my congressional record and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice, just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African American community.”
Ignoring for the moment the fact that African Americans are a part of the “general population” the answer seems plausible. Sanders has been a Senator from all white Vermont, Clinton ran for president in 2008 and has been in the public eye for decades.
Lack of awareness might of been to blame for Sanders dearth of black support of few months ago, but that answer no longer holds up to scrutiny. As the campaign has progressed, Sanders should be gaining minority support as more people pay attention to the campaign. Instead, the gap has grown.
A Monmouth University poll shows that Sanders and Clinton are tied nationally among whites. Clinton’s continued lead comes from her 50 point lead among minorities, up from 43 points in December.
Sanders cannot continue to use the rather infantilizing excuse that black people don’t know about his campaign while whites do. The real reason for Sanders’ failure to gain black support is the deeply rooted pragmatism in black politics.
Despite Sanders campaigns’ claims of bringing about a democratic wave election in a political revolution, it’s clear that he has serious electability problems. A Vox symposium that asks political scientists about Sanders’ electability has a pretty negative outlook. Half of Americans (not likely voters, who are more conservative) say they would not vote for a socialist, which is less than the portions that would be willing to vote for a Muslim or Atheist.
Republican attack ads against Sanders write themselves. In fact, Republicans are boosting Sanders in the primary in an attempt to face him in the general. While Sanders boasts of favorable head to head polls against potential Republican Candidates, Seth Mckee, a political science professor at Texas Tech University calls those polls, “absolutely worthless.” National poll numbers vary based on the level of media scrutiny the candidates would face, and Sanders will almost certainly decline after a year long campaign of branding him as an extremist.
While Sanders leads Clinton among voters who value honesty and authenticity above all else, Sanders simply pedals a different kind of dishonesty than most politicians. Consider this assessment of the promises of Sanders economic plans from leading Democratic Economists:
“As much as we wish it were so, no credible economic research supports economic impacts of these magnitudes. Making such promises runs against our party’s best traditions of evidence-based policy making and undermines our reputation as the party of responsible arithmetic. These claims undermine the credibility of the progressive economic agenda and make it that much more difficult to challenge the unrealistic claims made by Republican candidates.”
It is not just Sanders plan’s that traffic in dishonesty, but his plan for getting them enacted in the first place. I’ve written before about the implausibility of Sanders political revolution, but now we have some real numbers in. Turnouts in both Iowa and New Hampshire are lower than in 2008, and in both swing states turnout on the Republican side was even higher.
Black pragmatism comes from the failure of generations of politicians to really help black people, despite promises to the contrary. James Baldwin has summed up the sentiment well: “Of all Americans, Negroes distrust politicians most, or, more accurately, they have been best trained to expect nothing from them; more than other Americans, they are always aware of the enormous gap between election promises and their daily lives.”
While Baldwin’s essay is old, it sadly seems to remain true today. Take Barack Obama. In the general election, African American voters came in record numbers to put Obama in office in a landslide, but back in the primaries they were much more cautious. From the New York Times:
“In late 2007, a Pew poll showed her ahead of Mr. Obama by 14 points in South Carolina. But after Mr. Obama won Iowa, black voters swung behind him, and he defeated her in South Carolina by 29 points. According to exit polls, blacks made up 55 percent of the South Carolina Democratic primary electorate, and Mr. Obama won 78 percent of that vote to Mrs. Clinton’s 19 percent.”
While the black vote broke toward Obama after he demonstrated his electability, they understand that while Obama beat Hillary in 2008, Hillary won the argument of the campaign. Obama has failed to bridge partisan divisions–he widened them. His record of progressive change is strong, but reflects a commitment to pragmatism and hard bargaining more than the uplifting rhetoric of his campaign.
The consequences of nominating of Obama were basically nill, he was elected at the beginning of an economic collapse overseen by George Bush, one of the most unpopular presidents in the history of modern polling. The conditions were basically perfect for a Democrat to win, and he didn’t go around calling himself a socialist. If a Republican is elected in 2016, Republicans will control Congress, most state governments, and very likely a conservative Supreme Court. From decades of experience, black Americans know how devastating that result would be, and how it’s a risk that has to be minimized.