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How the ‘Obama effect’ helps Hillary Clinton, and hurts Bernie Sanders, with black voters

- February 16, 2016
(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Hillary Clinton has strongly embraced President Obama’s record. Campaigning as the one true defender of the president’s legacy, she mentioned him a whopping 21 times in last week’s Democratic debate, while chastising her opponent, Bernie Sanders, for criticizing the Obama administration.

Defending Barack Obama is a smart strategy for winning Democratic primary voters in general and black votes in particular. It’s an approach that should be all the more effective given the president’s tacit endorsement of Clinton’s candidacy.  And it’s almost certainly an important reason why the first two polls that have been conducted since the New Hampshire primary both show her still carrying nearly three-quarters of African Americans in South Carolina.

Indeed, my forthcoming book explains how the president’s connection to several different people and policies affects both black and white Americans’ opinions.  For whites, Obama’s positions usually divide white racial liberals who think racial inequality is due to structural forces like discrimination from racial conservatives who think race-based inequities are due to deficiencies in black culture.  Racially sympathetic whites become more supportive of the president’s positions; racially resentful whites become more opposed to them.

Barack Obama’s political allies and policy positions, meanwhile, often receive significantly stronger support from African Americans than they did before being closely connected to the president. My new book also shows that African Americans—especially those with high levels of racial solidarity—have increasingly identified with Democratic Party in the Obama era.

This same “Obama effect” can be found in both white and black Americans’ opinions of Hillary Clinton.

Before the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, white racial liberals consistently liked Hillary Clinton more than did white racial conservatives.  However, that pattern was reverse in 2008. Among Democrats, white racial liberals gravitated to Obama, and white racial conservatives to Clinton.

But after Clinton joined the Obama administration, the original pattern reasserted itself, and Clinton once again became significantly more popular with white racial liberals than with racial conservatives.

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A very similar pattern characterized African American support for Hillary Clinton.  The Pew Research Center’s table below shows that Clinton’s favorability among blacks declined by over 20 percentage points during the 2008 presidential primary.   Her popularity among African Americans then reached record heights when she was Obama’s secretary of state.

tesler_blacks1It is not surprising, then, that there is a strong relationship between black support for Hillary Clinton in this year’s Democratic primary and opinions about President Obama.

The graph below is based on polls from both 2008 and 2015-16. The latter are the eight biweekly YouGov/Economist surveys conducted since Joe Biden announced that he would not run for president.  The former is the March 2008 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, another YouGov survey that interviewed over 15,000 respondents.

tesler_blacks2Black Democrats who rate Obama “very favorably” (almost 80 percent) are about 25 points more likely to say they will vote for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, compared to blacks who only rate Obama “somewhat favorably.”

That is a dramatic turnaround, of course, from the last time she ran for the Democratic nomination.  While there is little change in Clinton support from 2008 to 2016 among African Americans who rate Obama somewhat favorably, blacks who have a very favorable opinion of the president are 65 percentage points more likely to vote for her now than they were eight years ago.

To be sure, there are lots of other factors involved in African Americans’ overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary (see especially Corrine McConnaughy’s informative Monkey Cage post on this subject).

But it appears that her close connection to President Obama is one reason why Bernie Sanders has not made major inroads with black voters in South Carolina despite his strong showings in the Iowa and New Hampshire.

Michael Tesler is Assistant Professor of Political Science at UC Irvine, co-author of Obama’s Race, and author of Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era.