Why Bernie Sanders Is Losing the Black Vote and How We Can Win It

By David Reid (@dopper0189), originally published by Daily Kos.

I’ve been a member of Daily Kos for many years and over the years, I’ve generally stayed away from meta-wars. That is, I avoid them until I think the fights are reaching a point where they’re damaging to this site, the party, or the progressive movement. In this case, I see two sides arguing with little attempt to find common ground. Because the argument is now over black voting patterns, I think I have a lot to add.

Before I begin let me give some of you who don’t know me some background. I’ve done get-out-the-vote (GOTV) work for over 20 years, with a focus on minority voters. I’ve done GOTV focused on black voters in: largely black areas (Detroit, Flint), in mixed areas (largely Massachusetts and phone banked in Connecticut), as well as largely white areas (New Hampshire). Over the years, I’ve worked on both a number of primaries and general elections. Just to be clear by GOTV, I mean I’ve done door knocking, drive-to-the-poll, cold calls, etc. That means I’ve had to deal with convincing people face-to-face to vote for a candidate. I’m not saying I know everything, but I’ve had to do more than convince true believers to vote. I’ve had to work with both the indifferent and the hostile.

Anyways, with that being said, I hope to do two things. One to explain why “black voters vote the way they do” and secondly present some ideas on how to convince them to vote for your preferred candidate. Now, obviously with a community of over 40 million people in all 50 states, you have a wide range of individual views and voting patterns. It’s impossible to explain every voter (Ben Carson is a mystery???) so yes, there will be some generalization in this diary. If you find generalization offensive you may as well stop reading here. But I hope if you continue to read you’ll learn something and hopefully  the comment section will also do some good.

Democratic Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders (L) and Hillary Clinton (R) talk to each other on stage prior to the start of the Democratic presidential candidates debate at Wynn Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 13 October 2015.

This is not a Hillary/Sanders either Rocks/Socks diary. There is enough of them on the recommend list everyday for you to choose from. To tell you the truth, I love them both for different reasons. But at the same time, it would also be ignorant to not explain why Bernie is largely failing to connect with black voters, so I will spend quite time explaining that at the end.

Now, of course issues like healthcare, the economy, war and peace, and taxes play as big a role in the black community as it does in America at large. This discussion is more a list of the special voting considerations. But I feel there is a basic HUGE misunderstanding of the Black vote on places like Daily Kos. But I’ll give a few key points.


Repeat that to yourselves several times a day if you’re doing GOTV. The Black poverty rate is ~27% compared to the white rate of ~11%. So yes, because the Black poverty rate is high, Black voters tend to care a lot about poverty alleviation. But that also means 73% of black voters DON’T live in poverty, the ghetto, or whatever other term is casually thrown around. If you assume most black voters live in poverty, you’ll very much insult your target audience. The plurality of Black people around 42% are working class and ~30% are middle class.

As of the 2010 Census, Black households had a median income of $32,068. 15.2% of Black households earn an income between earn between $50,000 and $75,000, 7.6% earn between $75,000 and $100,000, and 9.4% earn more than $100,000. In other words, in 2010 (still in the heart of the recession) 32% of Black households made $50,000 or more annually.  As of 2010, the poverty rate among African Americans was 27.4%. In other words, more Blacks are middle class than poor.

Far too many discussion begin with the assumption that Black voters are overwhelmingly poor. Yes, there is a much larger wealth gap than there is an income gap, but most blacks aren’t poor. Furthermore, since voting rates strongly correlates with education and income, it stands to reason Black voters are generally even wealthier than the statistics I listed above.



Poor black people living in segregated areas feel like they are being kept in an open jail by police heavy-handed patrols. Middle/working class folks feel they have done the “right thing” by staying out of trouble, working, getting educated, and still are being harassed. The two issues may seem to outsiders to be the same, but they aren’t.

Think of the difference between Ferguson and professor Henry Louis Gates. The anger generated from both was about racism, but the origins of the anger actually come from two different places. One is a battle to stop police from terrorizing an entire community, one is a battle for police to respect individuals who have earned their way into the middle class.

July 30, 2009 beer summit at the White House


In general most blacks view people racism as being on a gradient. On one end you have the KKK on the other you have a saint, but realistically most people fall somewhere in between. Racism isn’t pregnancy, where you either pregnant or you’re not. So statements like, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” just don’t mean much. Everyone has or said something racist in their life (yeah, that includes Black people). Also, we recognize that people can have been more racist in the past, but are less racist now.

White people are for more likely to try and make statements like “I’m not a racist.” Black people generally just don’t view racism as a binary condition. Granted this is a generalization, but it’s a good rule of thumb.


There is a historical feeling that many white Democrats have always just shown up at the Black churches 2 weeks before the election and then aren’t seen again. There are also long-standing bitter feelings that white Democrats haven’t helped Black Democrats with fund-raising to the level that would help them become viable statewide candidates. This is particularly a major issue with the Black political establishment and this feeling trickles down. Wrapped up in this is a feeling of a lack of respect. So telling Black voters some variation of “if you knew what is good for you, you would support candidate X” usually turns Black voters off. This especially true if black voters feel the person saying this hasn’t been invested long term in the Black community. There is almost invariably a backlash of “who are you?”, “Just showing up,” and “preaching”. When you have not bothered to build relationship to the community, you get ignored with the quickness.

Speaking of long-term relationships, Black middle-class voters especially care about the support of Black establishments like the historically Black universities and school (HBCUs) (the 105 historically Black colleges and universities ). Places like Howard University still supply something like 40% of all black doctors, they have been badly underfunded compared to comparable white schools. If this issue isn’t on your radar, you should get familiar with it.


Activists carry weight in the Black community. But most Black voters don’t get their political news from them. Black talk radio, Black-themed magazines, and several blogs carry a lot of weight, but Blacks of course also get their news from mainstream news services. Blacks are no more or less “low information voters” than the population at large. The Black specific news media helps inform us of stories and issues the traditional mainstream media ignore.

But getting back to activists, there really are two kinds of Black activist (yes they often overlap, as many do both types of activism). There are what I like to call confrontational activist and organizational activist. The confrontational activist are the anti-establishment ones. They tend to be the ones who get arrested at protests and get more media attention. The organizational ones are the ones who get people registered, help people in the community find jobs and resources, and do the majority of the GOTV.

Think how Al Sharpton got his start protesting at city hall (confrontational) versus how Obama got his start as a community organizer (organizational). The confrontational ones often raise the issues, but organizational ones carry more weight and usually are the ones who help solve them.

Civil rights activist Al Sharpton speaks at the National Action Network in Harlem, New York December 3, 2014. Sharpton on Wednesday called for a protest march in Washington following a New York grand jury decision not to indict a white policeman in the ch


To black voters this means going into places like South Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama where team blue isn’t going to win statewide anytime soon and fighting to defend black’s voting rights. 55% of blacks still live in the South, the vast majority of Black elected official still come from the South. “Writing off” red states and specifically the South (including states Democrats can’t win statewide) means writing off the majority of black people. That “writing off” includes everything from large numbers of extended family members to the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus. Floating this idea is like floating a lead balloon to the majority of black voters.


After the Civil War blacks had the right to vote and serve on juries, these rights were lost because the then liberal Republican party didn’t help defend it. It cost a lot of lives to win those rights back. That’s not something Black voters ever want to see repeated. Don’t go there!


The Black church maybe carries something like 40% of the Black vote, but it’s not a monolith. They tend to be centrist to center-right on social issues, but progressive on economic issues, and they tend to support candidates more on their social justice and economic platforms. Social issues can be a disqualifier but rarely are they the main voting reason (compare to say, white evangelicals who tend to vote the exact opposite way). The majority of Black voters aren’t a regular part of the “Black church,” but most respect it. It’s still the place where most GOTV activities in the Black community originate. Historically they have always provided the only Black-owned meeting grounds in many areas.

Screenshot (123)


So now on to the hot topic right now. Why isn’t Sanders message resonating with Black voters? It’s not a lack of knowledge of him. If a message starts to resonate, people start to research the messenger AND spread that message, that creates a positive feedback loop. 24% of Twitter users are black and Twitter if it’s anything is a viral message machine. The very fact black voters don’t know a lot about him AND aren’t trying to learn about him is an issue in and of itself. The main reason Sanders message hasn’t resonated is, in my opinion, a communication problem. The candidate and the campaign’s answers to points that Black voters raise about aren’t being answered correctly. Even worse, the campaign and surrogates are often doing more damage than good with bad communication. What do I mean by not adequately addressing the questions being asked?

A) Why do black voters show more trust in Hillary than in Sanders? Is it because “Sanders comes from a very white state”?

This one issue is the most misunderstood by Sanders supporters. The TRUST issue isn’t that Black voters think he is a liar, or won’t try to do what he says, it’s more a question of how he is going to face down the Tea Party Neanderthals? Blacks are expressing worries that he comes from a state that is both very progressive and very white. The majority of people of color still live in red states (55% of Blacks live in the South and by the way, ~50% of Latinos live in red states like Texas and Arizona or purple ones like Florida, Colorado) so there is a fear that he hasn’t had to face down truly hardcore Tea Party Confederate-loving conservative bigots. The feeling is that there aren’t many of them in progressive white Vermont.

So even if many black voters thought Sanders’ policies are better, they haven’t been sold on how his “political revolution” is going to materialize. Obama won big in 2008 and he was obstructed mercilessly.  There is a general feeling that it’s easy being a liberal in Vermont but arguing for those issue in the South (as well as the rest of the country) is very different where race colors every political discussion. The infamous John Lewis statement was aimed at the feeling that Sanders unlike the Clintons weren’t fighting the voting/civil rights battles in the south. Hillary registered Latino voters in Texas, she fought for blacks registering in Arkansas, and her and Bill both worked in Georgia. Bernie Sanders largely fought these civil rights battles in New York City and Chicago.

Bernie Sanders has been fighting for civil rights & racial justice for 54 years.

Now it’s great to point out Sanders did fight those battles, and yes everyone is thankful he did it. But constantly raising that he did isn’t really doesn’t address the core of the misgivings, “how’s he going to fight these battle in the South?” is the question being asked. Many Sanders supporters are answering the direct question, and missing the fears behind the question. These supporters then feel frustrated that Sanders’ civil rights record is getting discounted. It’s the wrong answer to the question.

If I was Sanders, I would start talking about a return to the 50-state policy. But most importantly I would add in that I would personally make sure that I (Sanders) would personally work hard to make sure people of color are part of that policy. Explicitly state that I want them to be part of my revolution. That would, in my opinion, be a more effective tactic. Yes, stop assuming that people will just invite themselves to “your” party because it’s not working. Promise to get the party to find and nurture AND support more people of color progressives to win in state capitals and in statewide races.

Battling over who did what in 1960 is beside the point and it does NOTHING to actually address the trust issue.

B) Sanders’ campaign has done a poorer job selling how his policies will address the specific needs of Black communities.  

Let’s look at Sanders infrastructure plans…

Sanders talk a lot about infrastructure but he is ignoring the biggest infrastructure need in most Black communities. This is the need to remove abandoned housing and buildings. One abandoned house lowers the value of the other houses in the neighborhood by 10%, 2-3 and the value drops by 25%. Black working class neighborhoods — and to a frightening degree middles class neighborhoods — have inordinate numbers of abandoned houses, this has helped stunt the housing recover there. These empty houses breed crime (mostly drugs and prostitution) and are a major issue in most Black neighborhoods. Cities don’t have the money to remove most of them and the GOP-run states won’t help. You want a “shovel ready project?” focus on this issue. Sanders has credibility on infrastructure issues. This issue of abandoned building predates the housing crash and continues to be a key driver of the racial wealth gap. Why hasn’t Sanders focused on this issue? With his general talk of infrastructure spending, Black middle-class voters just don’t see his spending plans as directly beneficial to them. Yes, indirectly Black working-class voters see it as providing jobs, but many Black voters think the majority of the money “will be going to big construction corporations” (and that doesn’t mean us). So why doesn’t the Sanders’ campaign sell directly the benefits of something like removing housing?


Let’s look at Sanders’ college tuition plans…

Bernie talks a lot about making college education affordable and very little about strengthening HBCUs. Making a college education free doesn’t address the quality of schools. Public schools are free and many inner city schools are bad.

Historically HBCU have been badly underfunded compared to comparable white schools. Hillary has been all over this issue for a reason. When people talk about reparations, people imagine Black voters wanting direct cash payments from the government. In fact, most realist Black voters are thinking of redressing tangible injustices like this. Jim Crow governments intentionally under-fund these schools which means they have far smaller endowments (and poorer alumni networks) than comparable schools. There is a reason only six of these 105 schools engage in major research and development (which also cuts down on the number of Black entrepreneurs). If I was advising Sanders, I would have him take a look at this.


C) Sanders’ campaign missed the boat with getting the “right type” of Black activist.

So why aren’t the issues I raised above on Sanders’ campaigns radar? The Sanders’ campaign really missed the bus on getting organized in black neighborhoods. I really can’t stress this enough. The Sanders campaign now has a decent number of black activists, but very few of the type who have experience persuading voters. Starting in the spring of last year, Hillary’s campaign made a concerted issue to sign up as many people with experience running elections in Black communities as she could. This isn’t just about “machine politics,” it is about a two-way communication system. A good campaign ask voters what their concerns are as well as communicating what their campaigns stand for. The reason the Clinton campaign started talking about increased funding for the HBUC is because of her network and the feedback. The Hillary campaign got the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd pickings of this group of GOTV activist. I wrote several times that Sanders campaign needed to start working on this recruiting this group during the summer. But the Sanders campaign waited until the confrontation with #BlackLivesMatter to start trying to recruit black activists.


In fact, because Sanders waited so long, his campaign is filled with black surrogates many from the Black Live Matter movement who think police misconduct is THE ONLY (or more maybe the overwhelming) issue in Black America when police misconduct is in fact only one of a number of top issues. These single-issue advocates play an important part in shaping public opinion and doing yeomen’s work on it. But while police misconduct is an issue that motivates Blacks to vote, it’s not by itself an issue that can turn a primary election. Please keep in mind I’m writing this as a supporter of the movement and a victim of police misconduct (including having police point guns at me).

Sanders’ supporters have also badly misplayed Hillary’s “Super Predator” (and to a lesser extent Bill’s “Sistah Soulja moment”) comments. As I wrote earlier, Blacks tend to see racism on a spectrum, a single event doesn’t make you a racist (or an anti-racist). The majority of the Black community already “litigated” the Clintons’ comments. Bill Clinton didn’t enter the White House with his vaunted “special relationship” with black voters. When he was first elected Clinton was just your standard Democratic Presidency. His Presidency started on high notes (appearing on Arsenio Hall to play the sax during the campaign) and low points (Sistah Soulja), rather it was the relationship he began to build withBlacks starting especially after 1994 (when the GOP took over Congress) that started him on the way to being the “first black President.” If we held everyone to the “say something we don’t like once and we’ll never forgive you,” Black America couldn’t celebrate a single president; remember, most of our Founding Fathers owned slaves. This also specifically applies to Democratic presidents too, Woodrow Wilson was progressive AND a bigot who fired blacks ruthlessly from the Federal government, FDR excluded blacks from most of the New Deal for political reasons, Truman regularly used the N-word, and so on. Pragmatically black voters just can’t afford to think that way. Black voters and politicians already had it out with the Clintons over those comments from the 1990s and in most of their mind, those are bygones. Now you (the reader) don’t have to have forgiven them, there’s no law saying you have to. But most Black voters have and that’s who you’re trying to convince. Once you forgiven someone, you just don’t go back. Now, many Sanders supporters would have known these issue were already “hashed out” if they were paying more attention to Black-oriented news sites. Yes, those are some strong words, but you didn’t know because you weren’t paying attention.

The Clintons are a known commodity in the black community. Even the Sista Soulja comment was delivered in front of a Black audience; unlike many politicians, Bill at least had the courtesy to say these things “about us” in “front of us,” not in front of a safe audience for the speaker. Yes, people respect that even if they disagree with what you have to say.

Furthermore there is a strong aversion in the black community to when people outside it “discover” something we have known or been doing for a long time, and then act like its “original news.”  Sanders who came from a rural state without heavy political pressure over crime and who wasn’t needed as the decisive vote on the 1990s-era crime bill voted for the crime bill. Yes, he spoke out, but he still voted for it. Hillary as first lady spoke in favor of it, but didn’t have a vote. That’s why this attack is such a dead end. Continuing an attack that’s not working doesn’t make sense. Most Blacks voters who have been following criminal justice reform for far longer than many “late converts” to the issue know that 85% of the increase incarceration rate came from state governments! In fact, a large part of it wasn’t even in the control of elected officials. In many states, the tough-on-crime laws were passed by ballot initiatives (see California’s three-strike rule). The facts just don’t fit the narrative. Black voters also trust the Clintons on appointing judges (see the Notorious RBG); that is also a powerful counterweight.

So what would be my overall advice to Sanders?

Sanders should more specific on how your plans can directly address the specific concerns of black communities. Black voters have often felt that large programs billed as “universal” have often overlooked their own communities. Being too broad is seen as ignoring them. So tailor your message and your programs to specific issues within the Black community. Talk about removing abandoned houses, helping to adequately fund HBCUs, enforce stronger regulations against banks charging higher rates to buy homes in minority neighborhoods, etc. These issues are all in Sanders’ “wheelhouse.” He could and should speak to them with conviction, purpose, and authenticity. Sanders should change tactics on how to do events in Black neighborhoods. Sanders normally does large energetic rallies; to do well in black neighborhoods, he needs to do more small listening tours. There are hundreds of Tweets and post showing Sanders holding rallies on historically majority Black universities and churches where the vast majority of the audience is white. This is a bad graphic. These images feeds a feeling that even when Sanders comes to Black neighborhoods he isn’t coming to address Black voters and their specific needs. Sanders needs to hold much small events, speaking to small groups of Black voters. Making them invitation-only events if necessary (you can still have the larger rallies later that day). Make sure that these are billed as listening events. Make these — not the rallies — your top event of the day. Yes, I’m sure Sanders has done some of these, but he needs to do a lot more, and make them more visible. He also needs to be seen as doing more listening and less talking. When you haven’t built up strong relationships, speaking too much comes across as “preaching” and not learning.

Sanders also needs understand that while the Black Live Matter movement is a very important issue to Black voters but it’s still just A single (very important) issue. #BlackLivesMatter activists are an important part of his “revolution brand” but having them on board shouldn’t be confused with him doing Black outreach. It should be noted some activist like Cornel West actually hurt him with a majority of black voters (especially active Black Democrats) with his attacks on Obama. Obama is the THE most popular political figure with black voters, and especially with black Democratic primary voters.  Sanders needs to figure out a better role for Mr. West if he wants to win over black Democratic primary voters.

Finally, I want to speak directly to Sanders’ online supporters. There is no polite way of saying this — stop with the skewing of polling data. It’s one thing to advocate for your candidate, it’s another to try and fire up your supporters; but by misleading people into think there isn’t a messaging and communication issue with the Sanders campaign and Black America directly hurts his campaign. It clearly wasn’t a “they don’t know him” or we’re “winning younger African-American voters” from the data. When you don’t acknowledge a problem you can’t work to solve it. Furthermore, when voters are expressing misgivings and you don’t address them, there is a negative reaction. Campaigns are about advocating for your candidate to voters. When a campaign has a communication issue, a good advocate works to bridge that gap, not pretend that it doesn’t exist.


As I have written for some time Sanders is a great candidate, with great ideas, but hampered with a bad campaign strategy to reach Black voters. Fixing that gap in his campaign is the difference between competing for the nomination and coming in a strong but distant second.

That’s my two cents on the subject.

13 responses to “Why Bernie Sanders Is Losing the Black Vote and How We Can Win It

  1. Pingback: Why Bernie Sanders Is Losing the Black Vote and How We Can Win It | adamevenevenadam

  2. I’m sorry, but as a black woman who remembers the 90’s and remember the welfare reform act and the crime bill I am appalled at my fellow African Americans. To align with Hillary Clinton is a slap in the face to every African American serving a jail sentence 4x’s longer than his white contemporary. It’s is an injustice to the likes of Sandra Bland, Eric Gardner and yes, Treyvon Martin. If they continue to support a candidate that has demonstrated her lack of respect for our communities, most recently with black lives matters, then with the young girl who payed to attend Hillary’s rich, white dinner party and was escorted out do Hilary could get to “the issues that really matter” then I am ashamed of my people.

    Liked by 1 person

      • It is always difficult to disabuse people of their self defeating illusions, and denial, without making them defensive, even hostile. The right mix of sympathy and shock needed to create an opening in an otherwise closed mind can be very different for each audience and even individual. Also, speakers/activists like Yvette Carnell (and many similarly minded) will often express their own frustrations about the gullibility of “their people,” by use of shock as in this video. I think that the “social inertia” of this type all comes down to: “people believe what they want to believe, facts don’t matter.” It’s pretty obvious most people don’t learn (politically) from experience: have GWBush voters ever acknowledged “voting for” the disasters of the Iraq War (and subsequent terrorism), the Crash of 2008, and Climate Change? Have Clinton voters and Hillary backers acknowledged the disasters of Bill’s deregulation of Wall Street (e.g., repealing FDR’s Glass-Steagall), “Welfare Reform” and the 1994 Crime Bill? It’s hard to remain sympathetic to a perennial victim, who never wakes up or fights back. The art of appealing to a wide audience is not a skill I have. Bernie is pretty good, and his Black, Latino, etc. surrogates are pretty good. But, there are a lot of different kinds of folks out there.


      • have GWBush voters ever acknowledged “voting for” the disasters of the Iraq War…

        Yes. These voters made Trump — who never tires of talking about his (fake) opposition to the Iraq war — the front-runner.


  3. Pingback: Top 3 Reasons Why Sanders Is Coming Up Short | People's War

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