Big wins for Joe Biden on Super Tuesday and in the South Carolina primary a few days earlier have seemingly bolstered a centrist view of how best to capture the presidency: appeal to the middle, pick up swing voters.
It is true that a sizeable chunk of moderates cast a ballot for Biden over his main rival, the more radical Bernie Sanders, in these contests.
But a closer look at how the vote broke down suggests a different interpretation: Biden’s surge may be less about moderates and more about getting out the anti-Trump vote.
As a political scientist who teaches in South Carolina and studies African American politics, I believe that understanding what drove the outcome of these early primaries may be key to creating a successful Democratic strategy to beat Donald Trump.
The Biden bounce
One clear takeaway from the recent primaries is that African American voters are indispensable to Biden – or any other Democrat who wants to win the presidency.
In the South Carolina primary, Biden enjoyed a 29-point victory over Sanders. This was due in large part to 61% of South Carolina’s black voters swinging behind Biden – a weight of support no doubt helped by an endorsement by the state’s influential black U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn. In fact, black voters cast nearly 60% of all votes in that contest.
This support carried through into Super Tuesday. In Alabama, 72% of black voters supported Biden, representing nearly half of Democrats posting a ballot in that state.
Overall, Biden received a median of 58% of the black vote across the 14 Super Tuesday state primaries, compared to just 35% of the median white vote. Biden needs black voters so much, he has hinted at selecting a black running mate – possibly Sen. Kamala Harris or 2018 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
Growing the tent
This direct courting and mobilization of the black vote stands in contrast to an “expansion election” strategy touted by some Biden supporters.
An expansion strategy – similar to what Hillary Clinton’s campaign tried in 2016 without success – seeks to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents while still inspiring high turnout among the party’s traditional base. At a campaign rally on the eve of the Texas primary, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, speaking in support of Biden, stated that as he could mobilize a broad anti-Trump coalition.
Klobuchar said it would include not only a “fired-up Democratic base” of African Americans and other minorities, but “independents and moderate Republicans” as well.
At the heart of this strategy is the belief that there are sufficient numbers of crossover voters who can be persuaded to switch party. Political scientists call this the “median voter” theory: Candidates have a better chance of winning a general election if they tack to the center and capture a wider electorate rather than focus on their own partisans. Exit polls from Super Tuesday provided mixed support. They revealed that Sanders got a third of all independent votes – 8 points more than Biden, but that Biden beat Sanders among self-identified moderates and conservatives by a margin of 30 points.
Come out not swinging
Therefore, political scientist Rachel Bitecofer has argued that this swing voter strategy is deeply flawed at a time when the electorate is so polarized.
Borrowing from the “negative partisanship” theory of Alan Abramowitz and others – which suggests that voters are motivated by which party they are against rather than who they are for – Bitecofer’s models assume there is really no such thing as a swing voter in the modern American electorate. This is especially true given how race or racial differences inform both party allegiances and party policy.
In all but two elections since 1972, a majority of white people have voted for the Republican presidential candidate – almost 60% in the last two elections. During the same period, increasing majorities of black constituents and other voters of color have voted for the Democratic presidential candidates.
Party affiliation is similarly split among racial lines, with white people increasingly aligned with Republicanism, Latino and especially black voters with Democrats. As American voters becomes increasingly non-white – from about 11% in 1976 to 28% in 2016, according to national exit poll data – implicit and explicit racial resentments among white people against such demographic change has helped fuel the deep philosophical and cultural divides now represented by the main parties.
Bitecofer argues that levels of negative partisanship and the size of turnout are the best predictors of an election outcome. And the accuracy of some of her recent projections have others taking note. In July of 2018, she was almost spot-on in her forecast of the number of House seats Democrats would take in the midterm elections – she was off by only one seat.
Bitecofer has already predicted that Democrats are likely to win the 2020 presidential election, because black and other Democratic-leaning voters will be so heavily mobilized against Trump.
Swing or soul?
The size of the black turnout in Super Tuesday and South Carolina supports that forecast. Exit polls indicated that one of the main reasons black and other primary voters tilted toward Biden in the end was his perceived ability to unseat Trump – an example of negative partisanship.
Some Democratic Party insiders may already be sold on the strategy. Stacey Abrams has argued that Democratic nominee needs to get out the vote of people aligned against Trump rather than chase elusive swing votes. In a late night interview with Seth Meyers, the rising Democrat star said: “We should be trying to convince people who share our values to live those values. … We should not be compromising our values to convince them (Trump voters) that they want to come to us.”
All sides agree that defeating Donald Trump is foremost in the minds of Democratic voters. The debate is whether trying to win over a supposed supply of swing voters will risk losing the party’s “soul” – its base.