Before Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the relationship between white racial views and partisanship wasn’t as clear-cut as one might think. Yes, Republicans won the large majority of white voters who believed black disadvantage could be attributed to a lack of hard work or effort—a key measure in the “racial resentment scale”—but a substantial minority of white voters was part of the Democratic coalition as well. But once Obama was in office, whites—and especially those with less formal education—“became better able to connect racial issues to partisan politics,” according to a recent book charting these changes to American politics.
Still, in his 2012 re-election race, Obama won a portion of whites with negative views of blacks. The reason has everything to do with the campaigns. Obama didn’t emphasize race or speak explicitly on racial issues. Neither did Mitt Romney. Race mattered, but white racial views—and white identity—weren’t as crucial to the outcome.
This changed in 2016. And the way it changed has important implications for the upcoming presidential election—and the Democratic race in particular.
In Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Michael Tesler provide a short but useful summary of what happened: “In 2016, the presidential campaign focused on issues tied to racial, ethnic, and religious identities and attitudes. The two candidates took very different positions on those issues, and voters perceived those differences. People’s attitudes on these issues were then ‘activated’ as decision-making criteria and became even more strongly associated with white voters’ preference for Clinton or Trump.”
From the start, Donald Trump ran an openly racist campaign of agitation and disdain toward immigrants, Muslims, and black Americans, and likewise, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign emphasizing tolerance and racial diversity. They were asking Americans to vote on the basis of national identity: Who should America be for? In response, white voters sorted themselves according to their racial views: If you held negative attitudes toward blacks and immigrants, believed racial inequality was a result of individual laziness or cultural pathology, or thought nonwhites threatened the economic advancement of whites, you were more likely to back Trump. If you believed the reverse, you were more likely to back Clinton. Account for education, and the result is the same.
The number of white Republicans with liberal racial views was low enough that there weren’t many defections. But the number of white Democrats with conservative racial views was significant—and critically, those voters were clustered in key Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin, enough to give Trump his narrow but decisive advantage in the Electoral College.
Hillary Clinton made plenty of tactical and strategic missteps in her bid for the White House. But it’s hard to imagine how she could have avoided this dynamic. To even win the primary, she had to disavow much of her centrist past and persuade voters of her liberal bona fides. This was most true on issues of racial justice, where Clinton faced a diverse Democratic base with increasingly progressive and outspoken views on issues of race and ethnicity and was tied to the legacy of her husband—whose White House legitimized and expanded on the “tough on crime” policies of his predecessors.
In moving left, Clinton hoped to flank her opponents and secure her standing. She spoke early and often about “structural racism” and “implicit bias”; she met with representatives of Black Lives Matter and shared the stage with the “Mothers of the Movement”; she embraced undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and described “police violence” as a force that “terrorizes communities.”
It worked. In 2008, Clinton’s share of the black vote against Barack Obama was just 16 percent. Against Bernie Sanders in 2016, it was 77 percent. And she ran nearly even with Sanders among whites with the most liberal racial views, after losing them by large margins in her race against Obama eight years earlier. But it also came with a cost: In 2008, Clinton won the large majority of white primary voters who attributed racial inequality to “lack of effort”; in 2016, she narrowly lost them—and that carried over to the general election.
If this dynamic is just a Hillary Clinton problem, alleviated by choosing a different nominee, then Democrats running in 2020 don’t have to worry. But if it’s an unavoidable result of being pitted directly against the president’s racism, then there’s a problem, especially for white candidates.
Not because of something inherent to being white, but because—somewhat similar to what happened to Clinton—the increased salience of identity puts them in an awkward spot vis-à-vis the Democratic primary electorate. A substantial share of those voters is black and Hispanic, and many of them seek expansive solutions to the ills facing their communities, from draconian immigration enforcement to entrenched racial inequality. These voters are absolutely crucial to winning the Democratic nomination, and everyone running will likely appeal to them with concrete policies. But white candidates will face the additional task of demonstrating social solidarity—of showing that they understand the problems of racism and discrimination and empathize with the victims.
If you have a history of racial triangulation, or if you’re trying to improve on past performance, this becomes an acute concern. If Joe Biden runs for president, he may—like Clinton—face sharp questions about his legacy, from his opposition to school integration in the 1970s to his vocal support for the “war on drugs” and significant efforts to expand the reach of the carceral state. His association with Obama’s historic presidency might not be enough to repel this questioning. Bernie Sanders doesn’t have that history, but if he runs, he’ll be fighting to improve on his performance with black voters in the last primary. Other candidates, like Sherrod Brown of Ohio or Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or even Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are unfamiliar enough among black audiences to merit similar efforts at showing solidarity.
After embracing the Republican congressional agenda, Trump can’t run on building infrastructure and protecting retirement programs. But he still has racism. And another campaign of racial fear and resentment—against another Democrat trying to shore up their racial justice bona fides—sets up another election where white voters are polarized along their racial views. This doesn’t mean the presidency is out of reach for Democrats—the midterm elections show there are other Americans to mobilize and win—but the “Obama-to-Trump” voters might be gone from the party for good.
One possible implication of all of this is that black candidates may have the strategic advantage in the Democratic primary. Not because they’ll automatically win black voters, but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity. Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to the president’s racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.
Of course, how everything actually plays out depends on conditions and contingencies that are impossible to forecast, much less predict. But if this dynamic is real, then there’s a certain irony in the possibility that to get some Trump voters back into the Democratic fold, the party may have to choose another black messenger.