After the polls closed on Tuesday, November 3, 2020, and exit polling was released, a media narrative developed claiming that Donald Trump’s share of the Latino and Black vote had outperformed expectations. Latino and Black men were said to be the most significant source of the surprising numbers. Juan Williams, the well-known Black political analyst for Fox News, opined that the results were stunning for him. He argued that these men were overly attracted to Trump’s hypermasculinity, allowing them to excuse Trump’s troublesome record and rhetoric on immigration and race. Williams concludes, “It’s sad to say, but a lot of Black and Latino voters, especially the men, got distracted by Trump’s boasts and bling.”
Regarding Black men, in particular, did Trump outperform expectations? Has the binary of Black voters overwhelmingly preferring Democrats become more complicated, due in large measure to the changing attitudes of Black men? Many news outlets certainly created this impression. There were media reports noting that more Black men voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election than they did in 2016. This observation led to excited headlines. For instance, NBC News published, “Black Men Shift Slightly in Record Numbers, Polls Show.” Likewise, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution offered, “More Black Men Abandon Democrats to Vote Republican, Polls Show.” Many similar stories hit the internet in the days following the election, accompanied by predictable pontification on cable news.
The problem with the impression created by these headlines is that it does not stand up under scrutiny. First, the alleged shift between 2016 and 2020 is relatively small. In 2016, CNN reported that 82% of Black men voted for Hillary Clinton, while 13% voted for Donald Trump. This left a third category of “Other/No Answer” with 5%. In 2020, CNN reported that 79% of Black men voted for Joe Biden, while 19% voted for Trump, leaving only 2% under “Other/No Answer.” This apparent increase of 6 percentage points for Donald Trump in 2020 obviously did not mean an equal decline for Joe Biden. Biden’s share of the Black male vote only decreased by 3 points, from 82% to 79%, while the other 3% came from voters who did not report voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Second, and more importantly, when one moves from initial exit polling to more rigorous analyses, there is not a decrease from 2016 to 2020. Rather, there is an increase for the Democratic candidate. For example, the Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that Hillary Clinton received 81% of the votes by Black men, and Donald Trump got 14%. In 2020, the Pew Center reported an increase for the Democrat, with Joe Biden receiving 87% of votes by Black men, and Donald Trump totaling 12%. These numbers from Pew are the same as those given by the Associated Press’ newer method, which reported the 2020 breakdown of the Black male vote as 87% for Biden and 12% for Trump. Indeed, even when Juan Williams asked with alarm, “How did 12 percent of Black men, according to the Fox News voter analysis, vote for Trump?” he did not note that his number was actually one point lower than the 13% reported by Fox News in 2016.
This alleged but doubtful change from 2016 to 2020 leads to a deeper, third problem in these media reports. The change is presented as part of a steady decline over several elections. This is evident in the lede provided by NBC: “Support for the Democratic presidential candidate reached a new low among Black men this year, according to the NBC News poll of early and Election Day voters.” What is the baseline for this “new low”? It is the historic election of 2008. That is when 95% of Black men voted for Barack Obama, the first Black President. That number decreased to 87% for Obama’s re-election in 2012. Then we have claims about a continued decrease with Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020. This is the basis upon which a report claims, “More Black Men Abandon Democrats.” This is the narrative underlying a media outlet relaying “a new low.”
This media narrative is simply false. The historical change is not a steady decline. Instead, the outlier was the euphoric election of 2008, when Barack Obama received 95% of the Black male vote. In 2012, when Obama was re-elected, his share of 87% returned to a level closer to where Black men have voted for the past 40 years. In fact, since the 1980 election, Black men have consistently voted for the Democratic candidate at a rate of 80% to 85%. The three-way races in 1992 and 1996 were exceptions, with Bill Clinton’s share of the Black male vote dropping to 78% in both elections. Likewise, since 1980, there has been a consistent bloc of 10% to 15% of Black men who have voted for the Republican candidate for president. So if there was a shift, it occurred with Hillary Clinton in 2016, when her vote share decreased to 81%. Yet, even with Clinton’s slight decrease in 2016, Donald Trump did not receive more than 14%. Further, if the Pew, AP, and Fox numbers are accurate, the Democratic share of the Black male vote in 2020 returned to where it was in 2012. Biden’s numbers with Black men are the exact opposite of the alleged decline offered by far too many media reports.
Simply put, Black men are the most loyal group of male voters for the Democratic candidate for president. Their slightly lower numbers for Hillary Clinton in 2016 rebounded for Joe Biden in 2020. Their loyalty to Democrats in this regard is surpassed only by Black women. Indeed, it is the unparalleled political cohesion of Black women that is truly stunning. They repeatedly choose “the lesser evil” in this winner-take-all, two-party system. As Leah Wright Rigueur explains, “For Black women, voting is an act of collectivism: They vote as an impenetrable bloc, with slight variation due to class, socioeconomic background, and geographic region.” Accordingly, it is only in contrast to Black women consistently voting for Democratic candidates at rates of 90% and higher that a slight variation in the voting of Black men can be seen as significant. Again, Rigueur is instructive, “The two concepts—that Black men are among the most loyal backers of the Democratic Party and that they are more likely than Black women to vote for Republican candidates—are not mutually exclusive.”
It is in the context of Black women and Black men as the most likely voters for Democratic presidential candidates that one can tease out some differences between them. Black men have voted historically for Republican candidates in slightly higher numbers than Black women. The same was true for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Of course, the question arises, “How can these Black men vote for someone with such problematic views on race?” This was Juan Williams’ protest.
Yet, as Rigueur points out, this has been the protest against Blacks voting for Republicans for decades now. In 1968, the baseball great Jackie Robinson penned an op-ed warning Republicans, “If the GOP should nominate Nixon or Reagan, it would be telling the black man it cares nothing about him or his concerns.” Before Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972, an editorial for The Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper, questioned how any Black person could support Nixon given that he reflects the “evils of white America—racism, capitalism, treachery, imperialism, arrogance, and deceit.” Likewise, Ronald Reagan has been judged by many as racist. Reagan’s rhetoric and policies played on White resentment and were harmful for the most vulnerable Black Americans. These decisions include Reagan’s citing of states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, his cutting of federally funded social services, his continuation of the War on Drugs, and his racializing of welfare with his infamous “Welfare Queen” remarks. Yet, he received 14% and 12% of the Black male vote in 1980 and 1984, respectively.
Indeed, Republican employment of race baiting and racial resentment since the 1960s has been well-documented. Lee Atwater’s infamous audio recording from 1981 made it crystal clear for anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. Now, to be sure, these aspects arguably worsened in some respects with the presidency of Barack Obama. In fact, it was precisely in that context that Donald Trump’s “Birther” smear in 2012 to 2016 revealed his willingness to reach deep into the racial gutter. That tactic alone should have been disqualifying. Still, if a Black voter can overlook Reagan’s track record, George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton Ad,” Sarah Palin’s smear of Obama as someone who “pals around with terrorist,” and Mitt Romney’s more modest “47 Percent,” one should not be surprised that someone can rationalize Trump’s offences as not being a bridge too far. It is a matter of degree, with Donald Trump being more overtly offensive than his genteel predecessors. (This refers to voter choices in 2016 and 2020, not to the horrors of January 6, 2021.)
A key issue for these Black voters who pulled the lever for Donald Trump, or his kinder cousins, is that they also believe that many Democrats are racist. Or that Democrats also engage in racialized politics to curry favor with White voters. The evidence for such claims is not hard to find. One can point back to Bill Clinton’s 1996 “Sister Souljah” moment as an example of a Democratic President using a Black face to talk about challenges with young people. Hillary Clinton’s regrettable use of “super predator,” also in 1996, is another example from an era in which a Black criminal element was presented to the public as irredeemable monsters for whom prison was the only remedy. Then there is Joe Biden’s leadership role as a then U.S. Senator in crafting the now infamous 1994 Crime Bill. This law has become identified with excessive sentences for illegal drugs and the accompanying racially disproportionate incarceration rates. For some Black voters, these Democratic politicians and many others played a significant role in what Michelle Alexander described as The New Jim Crow.
Now, of course, one might point out that Black elected officials also engaged in similarly troubling rhetoric and practice regarding crime and incarceration, as James Forman Jr. documents in his Pulitzer-prize winning Locking Up Our Own. One might also point out that the 1994 Crime Bill was a complicated, conflicted hodgepodge of legislation, and actually played a less significant role in mass incarceration than many contend.
Yet, these and other similar arguments could easily reinforce the sense that all politicians and parties are simply aligned against the best interests of most Black people. These complicated political realities can be read as indicating that “the system” cannot be trusted – that the American government will not act in a just way for the common good. Thus, one may as well vote for the candidate who will keep taxes low, facilitate social mobility, and whose policies might assist pursuit of entrepreneurial aspirations. Indeed, if the system is “dog-eat-dog,” one can rationalize voting for the candidate who might enable purchase of the biggest dog. When the rapper 50 Cent saw a misleading chart about Biden raising taxes to 62%, he responded, “Don’t care Trump doesn’t like black people 62% are you out of ya f—ing mind.”
When one is confronted by this kind of understandable cynicism, an argument for the lesser of two evils becomes a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is certainly morally and logically compelling, particularly in this winner-take-all, two-party system. On the other hand, it also becomes a means by which Democratic politicians only have to be marginally better on politeness and policy than Republicans. This political Catch-22 for Black voters allows Democrats to escape responsibility for complicity in the racially conceived, decades-long, civic abandonment that condemns too many Black people to a cycle of inadequate education, substandard housing, rampant crime, and random acts of police brutality.
Accordingly, Democrats must find a way to regain trust in “big government.” It might be something like a “Green New Deal” or President Biden’s plan for a large-scale infrastructure investment. The federal government demonstrated the ability to do such things in the 20thcentury. Yet, that is also when Blacks were blatantly discriminated against. After the Civil Rights Movement, elected officials moved away from old liberal ideas of big government investment. Instead, they offered “Black Capitalism” to neglected urban centers. Indeed, since Lyndon Johnson, Democrats have not been able to create another big “win” for the American people. Barack Obama’s relatively moderate “Affordable Care Act” is the one exception that demonstrates the modern challenges, as it has been weighted, limited, and resisted on every side. It is time for Democrats to change this trajectory. In fact, if Democrats do not muster the will to produce programs that provide agency and assistance for lower-income and middle-income citizens – groups in which Black Americans are disproportionately located – the aligning of Black voters and Democrats may reach the breaking point.