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Why replacing Biden with Harris may not mobilize Black voters

Black support for Harris has been weaker than Black support for Biden over the past four years.

- July 9, 2024
Kamala Harris takes a selfie with students at Howard University, February 2019, (cc) Office of Kamala Harris via Wikimedia Commons.

With pressure mounting on President Joe Biden to drop out of the race, Kamala Harris’s popularity is once again under the microscope. 

Some suspect that replacing Biden with Harris could help reverse Donald Trump’s inroads with Black voters in 2024 polling. That would certainly seem like a safe assumption. After all, African American politicians from the Democratic party usually draw exceptionally strong support from Black voters – especially when their candidacies make racial history. Barack Obama maintained that overwhelming support throughout his presidency, too, with a Black approval rating that was consistently in the 90s.

Surveys on Black support for Harris and Biden

Kamala Harris holds a groundbreaking position as the country’s first Black vice president. Yet her popularity among Black voters these past four years has been much weaker than Obama’s ratings. In fact, she has trailed behind Biden’s support from Black voters throughout most of their term in office.

Black Americans, for instance, rated Biden seven percentage points more favorably than Harris (79% to 72%, respectively) in the Associated Press’s 2020 Votecast survey of over 133,000 registered voters. Two years later, they rated Biden six points more positively than Harris in the AP-Votecast’s equally enormous survey preceding the 2022 midterm elections (62% to 56%). 

Over the past year, that significant gap between Black support for Biden vs. Harris has shrunk. You can see in the graph below that Black registered voters now rate Harris and Biden nearly identically in 2024 weekly tracking polls conducted by YouGov for The Economist.

Black support for Kamala Harris and for Joe Biden

Net favorability ratings (favorable minus unfavorable) of Kamala Harris and Joe Biden, January 2021 to June 2024

Source: YouGov-Economist weekly tracking polls (Black registered voters). Lines are smoothed averages.

But this doesn’t mean Black support for Harris has surged. You can also see that this recent narrowing has more to do with Biden’s net favorability (favorable minus unfavorable) rating dipping to new lows. Indeed, both Harris and Biden now have net favorability ratings in the 40s among Black voters. Obama’s net favorability rating among Black voters, meanwhile, has consistently been in the 70s in YouGov-Economist polls conducted over the past three years. 

This gap in support between Harris and Obama is particularly pronounced among Black youths. While Obama remains remarkably popular among Black Americans across the generations, there’s a wide age gap in support for Harris. Nearly three-quarters of Black seniors rated the vice president favorably in the 2022 AP-Votecast, compared to just 42% of young Black adults under the age of 25.

Why the tepid support for Harris?

Several factors likely contribute to Kamala Harris’s underperformance among Black voters in general and Black youths in particular. But our research argues that a big piece of the puzzle here stems from perceptions that the vice president is not sufficiently supportive of Black interests. Take this graph, for example.

Few think Kamala Harris cares “a lot” about Black people

How much Black Americans said Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Kamala Harris care about the needs and interests of Black people

Sources: April 2009 CBS/New York Times poll, four combined YouGov-Economist polls (June-September 2016), August 2021, YouGov-Economist poll.

Back when Obama was president, 78% of Black respondents said that he cared a lot about their group’s needs and interests. But the figure shows that only about half as many Black Americans have said the same about Biden, Harris, and Hillary Clinton in recent years.

Moreover, in an August 2021 YouGov-Economist survey, one-quarter of Black respondents thought that Kamala Harris didn’t care much about the needs and interests of Black people. That’s slightly higher than the share of Black Americans who thought that Hillary Clinton didn’t care much about this group. At the time of those survey findings, racial justice advocates were scrutinizing her 2016 presidential campaign over her prior positions on race.

We argue that these perceptions of the vice president’s indifference have eroded her support among group-interested Black Americans who have high levels of racial solidarity. In keeping with that contention, our research shows that multiple measures of racial solidarity were all implicated in Black Americans rating Obama more favorably than Harris in the 2020 Democracy Find + UCLA Nationscape. Harris, for instance, underperformed Obama by the widest margins among Black respondents who rated Black people “very favorably,” said race was “very important” to their identities, and perceived “a great deal” of anti-Black discrimination in American society.

We further found that the largest generational divides in Black support for Harris emerged between younger and older Black Americans who scored high in racial solidarity. These same measures of Black favorability, racial identity, and perceived discrimination predicted support for Harris among older Black Americans; but they were entirely unrelated to her popularity among young Black adults. 

Where this fits with prior research

That weak link between racial solidarity and Black support for Harris stands in stark contrast with the powerful role group interests have played in support for prior African American candidates running for national office. Michael Dawson’s pioneering book, Behind the Mule, found that Black Americans who had a strong sense of linked fate with other Black people were most supportive of Jesse Jackson during his presidential bids in the 1980s.

Subsequent political science research similarly shows that Black people who take pride in the accomplishments of Black Americans were most supportive of Barack Obama’s campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton; and that Black Americans who felt closest to other Black people were most likely to “strongly approve” of his presidency

But there were arguably more compelling reasons for group-interested individuals who score high in racial solidarity to strongly support Jackson and Obama. While Harris and Obama are both biracial, Obama identifies as Black, worked as a community organizer, represented a majority Black district as a state senator, and married a Black woman who is a strong advocate for racial justice. Harris, however, identifies as Black and South Asian, married a wealthy white man, had a long career working as a prosecutor, and represented a state that’s only 6.5% African American.

The historic significance of Harris’s position as vice president also pales in comparison to Obama’s. The racial symbolism of the first Black VP carries much less weight after eight years of an African American president – especially for younger adults who came of age during Obama’s presidency.

That, of course, would obviously change if Harris replaced Biden at the top of the ticket. Her history-making position as the first Black woman to be a major party’s presidential nominee could, therefore, open the door for her popularity to grow among Black Americans. At the same time, though, data from the past four years suggest that Kamala Harris would still have a lot of work to do to significantly improve upon Biden’s performance with Black voters as the 2024 Democratic nominee for president. 

Samantha Canty is PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Irvine.