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Why are African-Americans such loyal Democrats when they are so ideologically diverse?

- September 28, 2016
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a roundtable meeting with the Republican Leadership Initiative. Dr. Ben Carson is seated next to Trump at center. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

The safest bet in presidential politics this year is that Hillary Clinton is going to win the black vote by a yuge margin. But should Donald Trump win the election, it’s even safer to bet against his claim that he’ll win 95 percent of the black vote in 2020.

Such supposition is not an attempt to turn political punditry into easy money, but rather a sober assessment of five decades of data on black voting behavior. No Democratic presidential nominee has received less than 82 percent of the black vote since Kennedy’s 68 percent in 1960. And in the past 80 years, no Republican presidential nominee has done better than Eisenhower’s 39 percent in his 1956 reelection bid.

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The enormous attention paid to this quadrennial political phenomenon, however, often overshadows the black electorate’s diversity. As a black American, I know firsthand that our heterogeneous politics exist alongside our homogenous voting. So I set out to explore the interaction of these two characteristics of the African American electorate.

Why does black voting behavior differ from black political ideologies?

Today’s lopsided black vote for the Democratic Party is often tied to 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act. This was certainly a significant event, but the story starts earlier.

Previous research has found that when the parties’ positions on civil rights were essentially indistinguishable between 1920 and the mid-1940s, blacks’ party loyalties was also split. In fact, the NAACP declared in 1926 that, “Our political salvation and our social survival lie in our absolute independence of party allegiance in politics …”

But by the mid-1930s, blacks voted increasingly for Democrats — even though their party identification didn’t change — because of the Democratic Party’s progressive economic and civil rights policies, such as the extension of New Deal programs to blacks and the desegregation of the military in the late 1940s.

Despite this history, there is still no clean alignment between how blacks describe their political ideology and which candidates they vote for. As recently as 2012, studies show that 47 percent of blacks identify as liberal and 45 percent as conservative, but 93 percent voted for the reelection of Barack Obama.

There are two explanations for this incongruence. The first centers on racial unity: Black voters use the group’s well-being as a proxy for their own interests; the “black utility heuristic.” Other studies suggest racial identity and social pressure shape blacks into an electoral monolith. The idea is that blacks vote similarly as a show of solidarity.

The second explanation is that, despite their ideological diversity, black voters prioritize civil rights issues. In other words, the polarized civil rights stances of the parties have turned blacks into single-issue voters. This results in blacks being a “captured minority,” wherein they have no viable alternative to the Democratic Party.

But behind this racial solidarity and commitment to civil rights is still important political diversity among blacks.

Exactly what does black political diversity look like?

In my research, I use what’s called a factorial survey to identify how black voters differ in their political decision-making. In October-December 2015, I surveyed nearly 400 black respondents who are representative of blacks with at least some college education, which make up 53 percent of the black population and are the most likely voters.

Respondents read three vignettes about a hypothetical presidential election and rated their likelihood of voting for the indicated candidate in each one. The vignettes varied 10 factors: the state of the economy, the black unemployment rate, the violent crime rate, health-care costs, the candidates’ views on racial inequality, abortion policy, and same-sex marriage policy, the candidate’s race, the candidate’s party and the candidate’s prior political experience.

For example, in one hypothetical vignette, a likely black voter is informed that under the current president, who is a white Republican, the crime rate is down but health-care costs are up; the economy is strong and more blacks are employed; and the president is against abortion, disapproves of same-sex marriage, and thinks more economic opportunity and hard work is the best way to reduce racial inequality. The voter is then asked to rate the likelihood of voting for the incumbent president on a 7-point scale from very unlikely to very likely.

Other vignettes differed, of course. For example, a hypothetical vignette might have described the president as a white Democrat who supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but is presiding over an economy where more blacks are out of work — and then asked respondents to rate the likelihood of voting for the challenger, a black Republican in Congress who supports Black Lives Matter.

Ultimately, more than a thousand ratings like these were completed by likely African American voters. The results revealed important evidence of political diversity among blacks.

1. A candidate’s race matters to black men, not black women.

Black men were more likely to support a black presidential candidate, but black women were not. Instead, black women were more influenced by policy positions and socioeconomic conditions.

Scholars have long argued that the presence of black Democratic candidate increases black turnout and feelings of political efficacy, while a black Republican has no effect on black turnout. But it may be that the race of the candidate is actually more important to black men, who have a stronger sense of race identification than black women.

2. There were differences on the best approach to reducing racial inequality.

Generally, all black voters expressed a preference for new legislation to address civil rights protections, but middle class black men were the exception. These voters were more likely to support the candidate who believes that increased economic opportunity is the better remedy for racial inequality. Conversely, single parents, the vast majority of whom are women, were the strongest supporters to new civil rights legislation.

Why would middle class black men be different? Past research has shown that blacks recognize structural racism unfairly stacks the odds against them, but these men believe the best way to overcome racial discrimination is for individual blacks to be better than their white counterparts. Middle-class blacks are also less likely to believe protest and social action are the proper means of addressing racial inequality, but still have a high level of race solidarity.

This, along with the fact that men tend to be less liberal than women generally, may help explain why middle class black men preferred a different approach to inequality.

3. The violent crime rate has a negligible effect on middle class blacks’ voting choices.

The impact of the crime rate on candidate preferences was weaker among middle-class blacks but stronger among poor, working class and affluent blacks.

Recent research shows that whereas blacks across economic classes experienced the same rate of violent crime victimization in the late 1970s, better-off blacks today are much less likely to be crime victims than poor blacks. The findings from my survey may reflect the fact that affluent blacks also tend to have high levels of racial solidarity and thus support liberal policies that benefit working class and poor blacks, even if they themselves are not as strongly affected by crime.

4. Conservative positions on social issues actually didn’t matter.

Conservative positions on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion are common among regular churchgoers, including black churchgoers. But for the most observant black voters — defined here as those who attended church weekly — the candidate’s stances on these social issues had virtually no effect on their voting choices.

In fact, liberal positions were more important overall. Blacks who attended church less frequently or not at all were more likely to support pro-choice candidates.

This fits with another well-established fact: The social conservatism of blacks does not affect voting behavior in presidential elections, even though religiosity is strongly correlated with partisanship.

5. Experience and predictability matters to black parents.

Interestingly, black parents stood out from other blacks for their apparent risk-aversion: Other things equal, black voters with children were more likely to prefer presidential incumbents, whereas blacks without children were more likely to vote for congressional challengers. This could reflect a desire for stability and predictability.

In the end, party still trumps everything.

However, no attribute of these hypothetical candidates mattered more than their party. For all respondents, the presidential candidate’s party had a massive effect. In other words, when presented two candidates who have identical policy positions and who are running under identical societal conditions, blacks still strongly prefer a Democratic candidate over a Republican.

This suggests that most black voters view a Democratic vote as a heuristic for supporting strong federal civil rights protections and support for a Republican presidential candidate as a vote against group well-being. And this also helps explain why political diversity within the black community remains below the surface, while their monolithic voting behavior is widely noted in every election cycle.

Notably, few blacks appear to believe that party is such a dominant factor. When explicitly asked which factors were most important their choices, respondents were least likely to name the candidate’s party.

Of course, it’s quite common for voters of any race to deny the effect of partisanship on their voting choices. In this sense, blacks are just like most other Americans.

Theodore R. Johnson is an Eric & Wendy Schmidt Fellow at New America and an adjunct professor at Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @T_R_Johnson_III.