In 1992, Bill Clinton emerged from the field and secured the nomination by winning black voters, particularly those clustered in the southern states. Crucial to his appeal was a cultural fluency that he could deploy as a native of the region. The approach wasn’t as effective elsewhere in the country; black voters in New York, for example, gave just as much support to California Governor Jerry Brown.
Eight years later, Clinton was highly popular among African Americans, who overwhelmingly supported his vice president, Al Gore, a heavy favorite in the primaries. In 2004, black voters largely coalesced around John Kerry, who made the case that he was more electable and offered the best chance to unseat George W. Bush, who was deeply unpopular among African Americans. (John Edwards, a senator from North Carolina, still managed to split the black vote in a couple of southern states by making regional appeals.)
In 2008, black Democrats were notably slow to warm to the newcomer Barack Obama, who had to convince black voters that his historic presidential bid was viable before they would peel away from the establishment favorite, Hillary Clinton. In 2016, she performed admirably with black voters, though Bernie Sanders, with his more expansive policy agenda, was able to win the majority of those under 30.
This behavior isn’t capriciousness run amok. It does reflect the interplay of a varied set of electoral preferences. In the five consecutive contested primaries since Jackson’s heyday, black-voter choice wavered between choosing the culturally familiar candidate (Bill Clinton), the well-known establishment candidates (Gore, and Hillary Clinton in 2016), the candidate who stressed his electability (Kerry), and one candidate who is African American (Obama). Not coincidentally, the candidate that won the black vote in each of these primary campaigns also won the nomination. Which candidate won and why was the result of the black electorate’s careful analysis of the political moment.
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Seeing the overwhelming margins for Democratic candidates in presidential elections, some commentators portray African Americans as blindly adhering to groupthink—in essence, as simply doing what they’re told—as if they were incapable of making up their own minds. Yet there are good reasons why, even in Democratic presidential primary campaigns, large majorities of black voters do end up supporting the same candidate.
Political solidarity is not an innate characteristic of black America; it is a survival tactic that adverse experience has reinforced time and time again. Chattel slavery and Jim Crow paid little mind to the specific talents, abilities, and aspirations of each black person. Simply being a member of the race was sufficient to be disenfranchised and oppressed. Black Americans have been made acutely aware that their individual fates are linked to the well-being of the whole group. As political scientists have documented, social norms in the community encourage African Americans to look out for one another and ostracize those who don’t. During presidential campaigns, politics is a major topic in what the political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry has described as “everyday talk”— the lively conversations that occur in African American common spaces such as barbershops, salons, churches, neighborhoods, and now, black Twitter. After all this deliberation, African American voters typically end up backing the same candidate—which maximizes their electoral power.