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Who are black voters supporting in 2020? Here’s what we might learn from South Carolina.

It’s complicated.

- February 26, 2020

On Saturday, the last day of Black History Month, the South Carolina Democratic primary will be the first to deliver views from a significant segment of black voters. That’s important because black voters are a critical part of the Democratic coalition. In the 2016 presidential election cycle, 24 percent of Democratic primary voters were black. This year, black voters are expected to make up a larger share than ever before. That wasn’t true in the states that have weighed in on the Democratic nominees so far: Only 2 percent of Iowa’s caucus-goers were black. In New Hampshire, black voters are so underrepresented that the exit poll appears not to have had a question on voters’ race. And in Nevada, 11 percent of caucus-goers were black, still well below the expected national share in Democratic contests this year.

South Carolina will change that. Here’s how black voters and the South Carolina primary are likely to shape the race.

Bernie Sanders is starting to appeal to black voters

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) all did well coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire — but Buttigieg and Klobuchar have had trouble attracting black voters. A number of black leaders have criticized Buttigieg for firing an African American police chief. Similarly, a number of organizations, including the Minneapolis NAACP, the Racial Justice Network, and Black Lives Matter Twin Cities, have criticized Klobuchar for how she prosecuted Myon Burrell, a black man convicted of murder based on what appears to have been questionable evidence. Those two candidates have been polling in the low single digits with African American voters in national polls.

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Sanders has more black supporters than either Buttigieg or Klobuchar. Initially, he appealed primarily to younger black voters, but he is now closing the gap with Joe Biden among African American voters more generally, with 29 percent support to Biden’s 31 percent in one recent national poll. If his support continues to grow, and if he figures out how to appeal to more moderate black voters in the South, Sanders is well positioned to get at least a plurality on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention.

If this happens, it would almost surely come at Biden’s expense. But Biden’s campaign has long viewed South Carolina as its firewall and still expects to do well there, thanks to his time as Barack Obama’s vice president and long-standing connections to the state, including many visits over the decades, his close relationship with former senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and his regular vacationing in the state.

The three black candidates — Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Deval Patrick — have dropped out of the race. Sanders and Tom Steyer have some black support, but the other candidates have little or none. This would suggest that Biden is still likely to do well in the South Carolina primary, where his support among African American voters has been higher than it is nationally, including one recent poll that has him at 35 percent support to Sanders’s 20 percent and Steyer’s 19 percent.

Sanders and Trump supporters have this quality in common. So do other populist voters.

South Carolina may help predict where black voters elsewhere are likely to go

Historically, winning the South Carolina primary is a strong predictor of success at winning the Democratic nomination. The state shifted from holding caucuses and began holding primary elections in 1992. Since then, with the exception of native son John Edwards in 2004, every South Carolina Democratic primary winner has gone on to win the Democratic nomination. That’s in large part because winning the South Carolina primary shows an ability to attract black voters. No Democratic nominee for president since Michael Dukakis in 1988 has won the nomination without receiving a majority of the national vote from African American voters.

Consider the 2016 primary race, when Hillary Clinton beat Sanders in South Carolina 73 percent to 26 percent. She fared even better among African American voters, who made up 61 percent of the South Carolina primary electorate, according to the 2016 exit poll. Clinton won among the state’s black voters 84 percent to 16 percent.

Furthermore, the Democratic primary races included 16 states, along with the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, that had higher-than-average black populations, according to the 2010 Census. Clinton performed much better in these states than in states with lower-than-average black populations. In fact, in each of these states except Michigan, she won a majority of delegates. In this group of states, she won 1,008 pledged delegates to Sanders’s 604. However, in states and territories with smaller-than-average black populations, Sanders narrowly beat Clinton in pledged delegates, with 1,242 pledged delegates to her 1,197.

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That’s why in the 2016 race, Sanders initially appeared to have momentum, outperforming Clinton in the two early, predominantly white states of Iowa and New Hampshire. And it’s why he seemed to fizzle. Clinton pulled ahead of Sanders by one pledged delegate overall, 52 to 51, with the Nevada caucus, in which 19 percent of participants were Latinx and 13 percent were black. But in the South Carolina primary, she received 39 pledged delegates to Sanders’s 14, significantly expanding her lead.

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So who are black voters supporting in 2020?

In the 2016 race for the Democratic nomination, the Iowa and New Hampshire outcomes were outliers, failing to represent the Democratic electorate, while South Carolina and similar states were central to Clinton’s victory. So this year, which — if any — candidate can attract similar levels of black support?

Currently no candidate, including Biden, has the same kind of appeal to African Americans that Obama and Clinton did. African American support is split nationally among Biden, Sanders and Bloomberg, the last of whom is not on the South Carolina ballot. Whoever comes in first in South Carolina may win an advantage — but only if he or she can use it to reshape the competition for black voters’ support.

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David Darmofal (@david_darmofal) is an associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina and co-author, with Ryan Strickler, of Demography, Politics, and Partisan Polarization in the United States, 1828-2016 (Springer, 2019).