New York Times
By Noam Scheiber
March 21, 2016
Asked during a January debate why he trailed Hillary Clinton so badly among minority voters, Senator Bernie Sanders said he would gain ground once those voters became familiar with his track record and agenda on the economy and criminal justice.
Two months later and on the eve of another important primary voting day, Mr. Sanders remains on the wrong side of a yawning gap among African-Americans even as his performance among whites has been impressive.
One important reason for this may be that African-Americans have experienced somewhat more favorable economic trends in recent years. While still worse off than whites, African-Americans have seen their jobless rate fall a little further than whites have, relative to a prerecession average. Furthermore, the decline has been faster for African-Americans in the last year.
The economist Robert J. Shapiro recently measured the income growth that people experience as they age. He found that, on average in 2013 and 2014 (the most recent data available), incomes for blacks in their 30s, 40s and 50s grew more rapidly than for whites in the same age group. Older people, who strongly support Mrs. Clinton, have also seen income gains relative to other groups since the recession.
Still, the economic data is sufficiently tentative and murky that it is unlikely to tell the full story.
That is all the more true given the stark difference between Mr. Sanders’s performance among working-class whites and African-Americans. Typically in Democratic primaries, insurgent liberal candidates fail to make significant inroads in either of these groups. But Mr. Sanders carried white working-class voters by large margins in states like Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and New Hampshire. He nearly tied Mrs. Clinton among white working-class voters in states where he otherwise lost badly, such as Florida and Ohio.
Moreover, Mr. Sanders has done so while facing some of the same disadvantages that weigh him down with African-Americans: low name recognition and the group’s longstanding affection for the Clinton family. Recent polling shows that Bill Clinton’s favorability rating among working-class white Democrats is roughly equivalent to his rating among African-Americans.
Perhaps a better explanation for Mr. Sanders’s divergent performance is that while African-Americans and white working-class Democrats are experiencing broadly similar economic trends, they interpret them differently.
A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week found that African-Americans rated the economy as good by a ratio of about four to one, versus about two to one for white Democrats and an even narrower margin for white Democrats without a college degree. A Times/CBS News poll in December found that, relative to two years earlier, roughly three times as many African-Americans said their family’s financial situation was better as said it was worse, while Democrats without a college degree were almost evenly split on this question.
Geoff Garin, a strategist for Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 campaign who currently polls for Priorities USA Action, a pro-Clinton “super PAC,” posited that for a more economically marginal group like African-Americans, the unemployment rate — which has declined significantly for all racial groups in recent years — carries more importance than growth in incomes and certain assets, which have been slower to recover. For whites, even working-class whites, whose jobless rate is substantially lower than that for African-Americans, the latter took on comparatively more importance.
“The major source of economic anxiety for working-class white men is not whether they have a job tomorrow,” Mr. Garin said, “it’s that they still haven’t had their personal recovery. Their recovery is about assets and income.” For African-Americans, on the other hand, “you don’t take job growth for granted.”
He cited polling data showing that working-class white Democrats were roughly as concerned about inequality as they were about job growth and economic growth, while African-Americans were overwhelmingly concerned about the latter two. It is no surprise, Mr. Garin said, that Mrs. Clinton, who has had a similar emphasis in her campaign, did better among African-Americans, while Mr. Sanders’s emphasis on inequality resonated more with whites.
In a similar vein, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that African-Americans and Hispanic voters are more likely to use the economy’s recent low point, in 2008 and 2009, as the base line for their judgment than are whites, who may focus on more recent performance, where improvement has been less pronounced.
David Simas, the White House political director, recalled sitting in on focus groups when he worked for the 2012 Obama campaign for ads that began by reminding voters how bleak the economy had been when Barack Obama first took office. “The folks who responded to it the most were African-Americans and Hispanic voters,” he said.
Willie Minor, an African-American actor in Dallas, who runs a small theater company, recalled that in 2009, “I called all my lenders and creditors, asked for extensions, made partial payments, things like that.” He said that since then, thanks in part to increased revenue from the company’s productions, he has “been more secure financially.”
The Affordable Care Act may be another aspect of President Obama’s economic record that minority voters and working-class whites view differently. “Blacks and Hispanics benefited more from the A.C.A.,” said Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a policy and advocacy group. “It was a really dramatic lowering of their uninsured rate, which was obviously material to their economic health and their overall comfort in the world.”
Mr. Minor said that while he received his health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, many of his friends “had no insurance and no possibility of getting insurance.”
“Obamacare has been a boon to them,” he said.
By contrast, many whites, who were insured at a higher rate than the other groups before the Affordable Care Act took effect, saw the program as detrimental to their interests. “The promise of Obamacare was to make it more affordable for everybody,” said J. J. Price, a firefighter and union member in Roanoke, Va., who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 but Mitt Romney in 2012. “It’s done nothing but make it more expensive on us, the working class.”
Mrs. Clinton, of course, has been a dogged defender of the Affordable Care Act, while Mr. Sanders has dwelled on the program’s not going far enough. He prefers a single-payer system akin to expanding Medicare for the entire population.
The dynamic on the Affordable Care Act suggests a broader difference when it comes to African-Americans and working-class whites: When Mr. Sanders implicitly criticizes Mr. Obama from the left, white working-class Democrats may see it as advocating for their economic interests, but the claims tend to fall flat with many blacks, among whom the president is still wildly popular.
Larry Cohen, a senior adviser to Mr. Sanders and past president of the Communications Workers of America, said that Mrs. Clinton’s perceived loyalty to the administration, as well as the nearly uniform support for Mrs. Clinton within the black political establishment, especially in the South, were key factors in limiting Mr. Sanders’s support among African-Americans.
Others largely agree. “I don’t think you can discount how important President Obama is,” said Stanley B. Greenberg, a former Clinton White House pollster who recently conducted focus groups with African-American voters in Philadelphia and Cleveland. “Obama and his election and re-election is seen as on a scale of what the civil rights movement achieved.”
He added that Mrs. Clinton, by way of her service in the administration and her eagerness to defend the president’s policies on the campaign trail, “is seen as having a more instinctive identification with Obama.”
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