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Will Black Voters Back Republicans? A Political Science Perspective

By Sean Trende
Published On: Last updated 04/22/2024, 02:34 PM EDT

One of the less expected outgrowths of the Internet is the increased access political scientists and other academics have to the greater public. In 2008 and 2012, statistical modeling of elections surged from the pages of journals found on library shelves (we still used those back then) to the front page of The New York Times. In 2016, books like Kathy Cramer’s “The Politics of Resentment” helped explain the Trump phenomenon, while reminding us that in a world of seemingly magical wonkery, qualitative works still mattered (the less said about 2020 the better).

For the current campaign cycle, the “book of the year” might well be “Steadfast Democrats: How Social Forces Shape Black Political Behavior,” a previously overlooked work by two political scientists, Princeton’s Ismail White and University of Maryland’s Chryl Laird. A huge point of contention in elections discourse right now is whether polling showing Donald Trump (and other Republicans) making inroads among black voters and other voters of color is real and likely to continue. If the Republican vote share among blacks does improve, White and Laird offer a useful framework for understanding what happens. If the vote does not improve, White and Laird will offer compelling insight into why that was the case.

At this point, there’s not much dispute that polling shows a substantial swing vis-à-vis 2020, which is particularly strong among minority voters. Horse-race polls in the 2024 rematch typically show Donald Trump attracting in the neighborhood of 20% of the black vote, which would be a historically strong showing.

Some want to dismiss these findings. I’m certainly surprised by and even a bit skeptical about them.  After all, neither Ronald Reagan nor Richard Nixon had won anything approaching 20% of the black vote during their landslide reelection victories. To see Trump winning the largest share of the black vote since Richard Nixon in 1960 is jarring, to say the least. 

At the same time, whenever you find yourself questioning a poll result – much less repeated poll results – you should ask yourself, “Why do we read polls in the first place?”  If we’re going to be dismissive of findings that contradict even strongly held prior assumptions, there really isn’t much use for this kind of social science. That doesn’t mean you abandon prior views instantly in the face of contrary evidence, but rather that an effort should be made to incorporate the data into those views. And as the data mounts, those views should gradually shift.

Which brings us to White and Laird. The fundamental question that they ask themselves can be summarized as this: Why, when around one-third of black voters self-describe as “conservative,” do blacks still give upwards of 90% of their votes to the liberal party?  As the authors demonstrate, this isn’t just a matter of black voters defining “conservative” in a different light than white voters.  Across a variety of issues – including some racial issues – a large portion of the African American electorate is conventionally conservative.

White and Laird aren’t the first to consider this question. They look at previous theories – including that black voters share a sense of linked fate, or that they simply view themselves as a part of a “team” – and find them insufficient. Instead, they offer a theory they call “racialized social constraint.”  

Although this newsletter is insufficient to do the theory justice, the basic idea is this: One legacy of slavery and segregation is that many blacks have almost entirely black social networks (as do many whites): churches, schools, neighborhoods and families are still largely segregated. For blacks whose life is bound to these more uniform communities, White and Laird find, voting behavior does sort along ideological lines. However, for blacks whose networks are more racially diverse, the voting behavior sorts more “traditionally” by ideology.

Through a series of experiments and quasi-experiments, they develop a theory to suggest that the threat of social retaliation and ostracism within these racially cohesive pathways is a major factor in maintaining uniform voting behavior. As they explain, “[t]he greater the social distance blacks have from the black community, the less accountable they are to group members and, thus, the freer they are to act on their individual interests.” Thus, to them, black political unity is maintained/policed/enforced through these social and kinship networks.

This is not necessarily unique to black political experience; some whites experience this type of blowback when they buck familial religious or political norms. Labor unions served a similar function for white ethnics in the mid-20th century.  But the implications for 2024 are fascinating. What we might expect, if the theory holds, is that black support for Democrats will likely increase through Election Day as kinship networks activate and produce social pressure to conform to Democratic Party voting norms.

But what if it doesn’t? If “Steadfast Democrats” has a shortcoming, it is that it includes only a short section on the implications for the future. But the authors’ expectation is that, over time, as blacks achieve economic success, as integration increases, and as historically black institutions decline (I was surprised to learn that NAACP membership is in long-term decline), Republican voting will become more commonplace. They note the potential for Twitter and similar spaces to fill that void somewhat, but also acknowledge that social networking allows black conservatives to create alternative networks.

This suggests to me three things that might have happened if Trump does win a substantial portion of the minority vote (I’m unsure whether all three need to happen or just some combination).  First, continued racial integration would have to allow black conservatives to hit some sort of critical mass, allowing them to insulate themselves from the social pressure that flows through traditional pathways. If you’re the lone voice at the Thanksgiving dinner table arguing for Republican voting, that’s one thing; if there are two or three doing so, suddenly the threat is less daunting. This critical mass concept isn’t explored in the book, but it seems consistent with the theory.

Second, social networks would have to have lesser engagement this election. This is related to the issue of “critical mass,” but it envisions a countervailing apathy on the part of committed black Democrats about the election that allows such a critical mass to form. One imagines a large portion of the Democrats’ 2024 strategy will revolve around combatting such apathy.

Finally, there is the potential for white progressive overreach. I first started thinking about this in the course of some expert witness work I did on behalf of black plaintiffs in Michigan. While the districts in question were overwhelmingly Democratic, in the primaries you saw voting patterns emerging again and again that resembled something out of the Jim Crow South.  

One Senate district in the state legislature stood out: District 8, which featured a black incumbent and white incumbent who had been paired together by the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. The black incumbent received about 80% of the black vote and only 4% of the white vote. This was particularly interesting because the white senator was a progressive who focused on social issues like abortion and transgender rights, which obviously failed to play in the black community the same way it played in the white community.

Most of the black voters still voted Democratic in the autumn general election. But what if they didn’t? What if the rise of progressive white Democrats who emphasize social issues heavily really does raise the salience of a battery of issues that “lunchpail" black Democrats aren’t that interested in, or even oppose?

This is the most commonly talked about explanation for the current polling numbers. I think there’s something to it; at the very least the cleavage in the Democratic coalition here is real. But for it to really start to break off a substantial number of black Democrats, some version of 1 and/or 2 probably has to happen as well.

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