by Jessica Tarlov
The job of a political pollster is simple: find a path to victory. If you’re working for a Democratic candidate for president, the path you dream of is one that shows widespread support from African Americans, especially women, and older voters.
It goes without saying that a candidate can’t just have his or her pick of supporters. If they could, Mayor Pete Buttigieg wouldn’t be polling at zero percent among black voters in South Carolina. There are some minds — and votes — that cannot be changed. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would certainly attest to that.
But for all the talk of building winning coalitions in unexpected places, Democrats know there are two specific voting blocs that make Democratic victories possible. African Americans and voters over 50 have been delivering wins for decades, and candidates waging their campaigns on a different approach have a tough road ahead.
For example, millennials. Alleviating student debt and addressing climate change are front and center, two issues that are priorities for younger voters. But are millennials front and center on Election Day? If 2018 is any indication, I wouldn’t stake my campaign on a “youth” agenda: 36 percent of voters ages 18-29 cast ballots, compared to 53 percent of the population overall. And the University of Chicago GenForward Survey Project found former Vice President Joe Biden with a 21 percent edge over the other Democrats among millennials. All of Sanders’ work courting the youth vote appears to be for naught, as millennials prove themselves to be motivated by questions of electability (just like everybody else).
While there were increases in voting of the under-50 bloc overall, the votes cast by baby boomers and those older increased by over 3.5 million — even as, not to get morbid, the number of eligible voters in the bracket fell by 8.8 million between Election Day 2016 and 2018.
If you’re an older adult and alive, you’re voting (more or less). This speaks clearly to the danger of tailoring campaigns to a vision of what they think young people want.
Antjuan Seawright, a prominent South Carolina-based Democratic consultant and CEO of Blueprint Strategy, told me that voters over age 50 “have become one of the most reliable and trusted constituency groups within the party.” Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard professor of government who has studied voter turnout for decades, has shown that “older people tend to vote more often in primaries.”
African American voters also are very reliable voters. We all know that black voters played a critical role in Barack Obama’s elections. But black turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, going down by more than 7 percentage points.
Things changed for the 2018 midterms, though. Voter turnout in all minority groups jumped — a 13 percent increase for Hispanics and Asians from the 2014 primaries, and 11 percent for blacks. But not every group overwhelmingly backed Democrats. According to African American Research Collaborative data, 90 percent of black voters supported Democrats, compared to 73 percent of Latinos and 72 percent of Asian voters.
What’s more, 92 percent of black women voted for Democratic candidates in 2018. Fresh off delivering wins for Democrats such as Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, black women catapulted new faces in Congress, including Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Lucy McBath (D-Ga.). As Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in 2018: “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted.”
The smart presidential candidates are heeding Perez’s words. Joe Biden is a case in point. The frontrunner’s platform is full of moderate proposals and reverses his long-held position on the Hyde amendment, which mostly bars use of federal money for abortions. Each element is a winning message for these pivotal groups and puts Biden in an even stronger position in South Carolina, the critical early primary state.
Every vote matters and it’s an obvious mistake to ignore any constituency. But when you look at these figures, it becomes abundantly clear that not all voting blocs are created equal. This is the danger of using broad terms such as “minority support.” Latino support for Democrats is in no way the same as black support for Democrats.
With the news that President Trump is instructing his team to lie about devastating internal polls in 17 states, and the latest Quinnipiac poll that found the president losing in head-to-head matchups with six leading Democrats — including a 13-point loss to Biden — Democrats have a clear opening. That opening, though, needs to be built from groups that are known to be consistent and reliable in Democratic elections.
The media are doing presidential candidates no favors by amplifying divisions between moderates and progressives, or youth and older voter agendas. They’d be doing news consumers a favor if they broke down the realities of this primary: black voters and the 50-plus constituency are the voters likely to decide it all.