Black Democrats are moderate
Biden’s base favors a move to the middle
Lauren Harper is co-founder of WelcomePAC and The Welcome Party, which work to strengthen a coherent, strong and welcoming Democratic Party faction that engages the middle and protects democracy. She writes the WelcomeStack newsletter and previously served as South Carolina state director for Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign and as policy and communications advisor for former Columbia, S.C., Mayor Steve Benjamin.
For President Biden, 2023 may well have been “The Year of the Pivot.”
The media has produced story after story about how Biden has “pivoted to the center,” taking mainstream, middle-of-the-road stances on hot-button issues like immigration, climate change and crime.
Despite his historic job performance, most of these pieces claim that the President has risked alienating the uber-progressive left flank with his immigration, energy and crime policies. But one headline in particular stood out. An early March analysis by the Associated Press argued that the President's pivot to the middle risked alienating not only progressives but also Black voters in calling for stronger security at the southern border, approving a significant oil drilling effort in Alaska and rejecting activists’ calls to defund law enforcement by choosing to instead “fund the police.”
The reality is far different: Biden’s pivot to the center may anger white radicals, but it is actually a move that will position him much closer to the Black voters who make up the base of the Democratic Party, something I mentioned recently on MSNBC.
In the eyes of many journalists, including those who wrote the Associated Press piece, the preferences of Black voters (especially Black Democrats) and progressives are essentially one and the same. The crowd that President Obama’s press secretary famously called the “Professional Left” has convinced many in the media that Black voters support their Far Left agenda. In reality, these wealthy white liberals are disguising their preferences behind the shield of Black voters.
Black voters are not a monolith, but even more importantly, they’re not all that progressive as a demographic.
Black voters are more moderate across the board, and Black voters are the Democratic constituency most likely to identify as moderate.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents, Black voters are the racial demographic least likely to identify as “liberal.” Only 29% of Black Democrats call their ideology “liberal,” compared to 37% of their Hispanic counterparts and a whopping 55% of white Democrats and Dem-leaners (Pew Research). A plurality (43%) called themselves “moderate,” and one in four (25%) identified as “conservative.” In the aftermath of Rep. Jim Clyburn’s tide-shifting endorsement in the 2020 Democratic primary, a clear majority of Black voters in South Carolina (61%) voted for Joe Biden, elevating him over Far Left favorite Bernie Sanders and putting him on track to the White House.
Far from alienating these voters by moving to the mainstream middle, President Biden has shown time and time again that he’s aligned with Black voters on important issues — especially in cases where that has meant bucking the Sanders faction that is richer, whiter and more educated than the rest of the country.
In examining Biden’s “pivot to the center” that the AP claims risks alienating Biden’s Black base, The Welcome Party conducted an analysis of ANES and CES public survey datasets and found the following on matters of immigration, climate change and crime. We also reviewed recent Blueprint polling that suggests Democrats should recalibrate our understanding of what Black voters want, how closely it aligns with Independents’ preferences and who our “base” actually is.
Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, Black voters are significantly more likely to express support for increasing the number of border patrols on the US-Mexico border (63%) than their white (47%) and Hispanic (50%) counterparts (CES ’22 dataset).
While Democrats and Democratic leaners across racial demographics express opposition to “increas[ing] spending on border security by $25 billion, including building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico,” Black voters are the constituency most likely to support the measure, with 30% in support — compared to 22% of Hispanics and just 15% of white Democrats (CES ’22 dataset).
According to the most recent Blueprint polling, Black Democrats are more supportive of stricter asylum and refugee policies than white Democrats (who are even more liberal than Hispanic Democrats).
Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, Black voters are the only demographic group that supports the statement “increase fossil fuel production in the U.S. and boost exports of U.S. liquefied natural gas” — and overwhelmingly so (60% support, 40% oppose). Meanwhile, both white and Hispanic voters oppose (64% oppose, 36% support, and 57% oppose, 43% support, respectively). (CES ’22 dataset).
Among these constituencies, Black Democrats are least likely to believe that climate change is an “extremely” important issue (26%), compared to white (49%) and Hispanic (46%) Democrats. Black Democrats are also nearly three times as likely as their white (6%) and Hispanic (8%) counterparts to say it is “not at all” or just “a little” important (18%).
In the most recent Blueprint polling, Black and Hispanic Democrats were far more likely than white Democrats to support an “all-of-the-above” approach to energy.
Black Democrats and Democratic leaners are most supportive of Biden’s call to “fund the police.” Among those polled, 47% say federal budget spending should be “increased a lot” to deal with crime, compared to just 17% of white Democrats and 36% of Hispanics (ANES ’20 dataset). Black Democrats are also the least likely to believe spending on crime should be decreased.
Black Democrats and Democratic leaners are the most likely racial demographic group to express support for “increas[ing] the number of police on the street by 10 percent, even if it means fewer funds for other public services” (50% support, 50% oppose) — compared to white (67% oppose, 33% support) and Hispanic Democrats (58% oppose, 42% support) (CES ’22 dataset).
And that’s not all.
In the realm of social issues, Black voters are more likely to be pro-life, and they are the most conservative demographic group concerning transgender Americans. Thirty-one percent of Black voters feel strongly that people “have to use the bathrooms of the gender they were born as” compared to 8% of white Democrats and 19% of Hispanics (ANES ’20 dataset). While 43% of white Democrats and 31% of Hispanic Democrats believe that trans people should use the bathroom of their choice, only 18% of Black Democrats do.
Black and Independent voters agree on a range of issues
Last month, Brandon Presley, a pro-life moderate Democrat who endorsed President Bush for re-election, performed historically well with Black voters in Mississippi, suggesting that moderation is not only not an impediment to winning Black voters, it is often helpful.
A recent Blueprint poll that included oversamples of Black and Independent voters (defined here as anyone who switched their vote at any point between 2018 and 2022 from Republican to Democrat or Democrat to Republican) affirmed that these voters share policy priorities. On many core issues, messages that appeal to our “base” are also persuasive with Independent voters.
Take the economy as an example. Both Black and Independent voters prioritized prices over jobs, with 51 percent of Black voters and 61 percent of Independents selecting prices as their top priority.
The reality is that the base and persuadable voters want similar things: lower prices, lower prices, lower prices.
Far from needing to embrace progressive policies to appeal to Black voters, the Blueprint polling suggests that only 17 percent of Black voters view Biden as too conservative, similar to the 16 percent among Independents. More Black voters (27 percent) view Biden as too liberal than too conservative.
Crucial to Biden’s victory in 2020 (and, of course, to an encore next year): A clear majority, 56 percent, of Black voters see him as “about right.” And the 34 percent of Independents who find him “close to their views” didn’t hurt either.
Similarly, while there was not universal agreement among Black and Independent voters about the most popular Biden accomplishments, there was some key overlap, and none of the top five policies with Black voters had negative support among Independents (and vice versa). Top testing policies (policies that appeared in the top 10 for both groups) included:
Allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug pricing to lower the cost of prescription drugs
Banning companies from charging hidden or misleading “junk fees” for products and services
Passing the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Bill to revitalize domestic manufacturing and create jobs
Reducing the federal deficit by $1.7 trillion
Capping insulin at $35 a month for seniors
The maxim that Democrats must “mobilize the base” could be better understood simply by acknowledging that our actual base is moderate on many core issues.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty
Media coverage of Black voters is needed, warranted and, quite frankly, appreciated; it just needs to more accurately represent the sentiment of the entire demographic and not merely its progressive segment.
It’s important to Black voters to be better understood by political candidates and elected officials — and, one would think, important to the candidates and officials themselves to better understand. Misconceptions of Black voters by the media can result in messaging that misses the mark when it comes to reaching these voters ahead of elections, particularly as the voting population changes over time.
Representing the most moderate voters in the Democratic Party, Black voters often find themselves caught in the middle between uber-liberal white progressives and racist white conservatives. As each election cycle comes and goes, it grows harder for Black voters — and arguably most voters — to find their political homes.
Democrats must adapt, refine their messaging and deliver results to effectively win the middle in 2024 and cycles to come.