Black voters emerge as 2016's new 'establishment' vote

An overwhelming majority of black voters have bucked this election’s big story lines and helped propel former Hillary Clinton, a consummate insider, to a substantial lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Richard Drew/AP
The Rev. Al Sharpton joins Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the podium after she spoke during the 25th annual National Action Network convention in New York, April 13.

A funny thing happened on the way to the revolution: Black voters have nearly single-handedly created a bulwark for the status quo.

In an unpredictable and raucous election cycle, white Millennials and older liberal Democrats have swooned for the socialist insurgent Bernie Sanders from Vermont, who has energized both generations with his boisterous rallies and promises of free tuition, universal health care, and trade policies that would upend a decades-long bipartisan consensus on global economics.

On the Republican side, the Manhattan billionaire Donald Trump, too, has draw in millions of disaffected working class whites, challenging the GOP establishment and creating chaos for a party now seeking a coherent identity going into November. On his heels is Ted Cruz, an erstwhile Senate pariah from Texas and tea party darling, who also has run as an outsider.

But with a reserved pragmatism, and perhaps even a bit of optimism about the direction of the country under President Obama, an overwhelming majority of black voters have bucked this election’s big story lines and helped propel Hillary Clinton, a consummate insider and as close as it comes to Democratic royalty, to a substantial lead in the race for the party’s presidential nomination heading into next week’s New York primary.

It’s a surprising and even ironic cultural shift, even as racial issues and the stormy protests of the Black Lives Matter movement have become one of the most potent political issues in the country over the past few years. But older black voters have become the quiet defenders of the Democratic “establishment.”

“The other candidates don't appear to be presidential material, and Clinton appears to be the only candidate that even looks like a president, or even talks like a president,” says Horace Cudjoe, a retired public middle school science teacher from Queens and a member of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.

Mr. Cudjoe says he is drawn to Senator Sanders, “but his policies, I think they are something that everyone would support in an ideal world,” he says. “But the practicalities – what he's asking for is impossible in the United States...You want to believe it, and his supporters want to believe it, but they don't have any understanding of what it takes to achieve what he's asking for.”

The contrasts between the two campaigns and their supporters were on display in New York Wednesday. At Manhattan’s iconic Washington Square in Greenwich Village, Senator Sanders spoke before a wild, star-studded crowd of about 25,000 mostly young voters. The actors Tim Robbins, Rosario Dawson, and the director Spike Lee each joined the Vermont senator in the packed event.

Former Secretary of State Clinton, by contrast, appeared in front of a very small group of 500 mostly black and Latino families at an organizing event in the Bronx. And earlier in the day, she spoke in front of a staid crowd of older black Americans at the 25th anniversary national convention of the National Action Network, receiving polite applause.

Yet because these voters will make up about 20 percent of those going to the polls in New York next week, Clinton, the former US senator here, currently holds double-digit leads over Sanders in most polls leading up to next week’s primary – a predictable trend so far in the Democratic race. And given current national polls and a friendly electoral map for Democrats, she remains the odds-on favorite to win the presidency this November.

“We tip our cap to him in terms of the enthusiasm that he’s generating,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon of the raucous Sanders event on Wednesday, according to Politico. “But we’re concerned with one crowd measure – which is who shows up to vote, and in the highest turnout elections that we’ve had throughout this primary process, that’s where Hillary Clinton actually tends to win.”

“Crowd size is nice,” Mr. Fallon added, “but when it counts next Tuesday, we think we’ll come out on top.”

Indeed, though modest with their enthusiasm, those at Sharpton’s National Action Network convention were mostly Clinton supporters.

“If Donald Trump or Ted Cruz win, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer,” says Sylvia Miller, a retired nurse from Queens. “But if Hillary Clinton has a chance, you'll be on a stand-still, and be stable and stay where you're at, than to go under any further.”

Hardly the kind of love supporters of Trump or Sanders give their candidate. Indeed, as majorities of white voters in both parties appear to be pressing for a full-blown political revolution, black voters have been more measured, again and again citing Clinton’s experience and close connections to President Obama as the primary reasons for their support.

But even this event reveals some of the shifts in what might be called the black Democratic establishment. Decades ago, Sharpton was a polarizing, track suit and gold medallion-wearing protest leader in New York, in many ways on the fringes and in the shadows of civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young. Today he is arguably the most visible of the old guard, the elder statesman with a talk show on MSNBC.

Sanders has surged recently, winning the past seven states, and often convincingly. But these were states with fewer black voters. To win, he must win each remaining state, including California, by landslides, garnering at least 56 perecent of the remaining pledged delegates to barely overtake Clinton’s current lead.

And he must convince a majority of unpledged superdelegates, the establishment of party leaders and elected officials who now support Clinton 469 to 31, to switch their allegiance. Not likely, experts say.

“For reasons that have nothing to do with politics, people may decide that Bernie’s too old, or that he's the dark horse and it’s going to be impossible for him to win,” says Monique Coleman, an insurance field account manager from the Bronx, at the organizing event at the borough’s Co-op City housing complex on Wednesday.  

She’s a “big Clinton fan,” she says, but “some of Bernie’s messages have resonated, and I feel she has a little accounting to do to help us understand some of the policies that she’s supported, the trade policies, the criminal justice issues, and even the Wall Street bailouts.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, in polls black Americans are by far the most optimistic racial group in the country, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. Some of this may have to do with the “Obama effect,” the think tank said, as well as the political community’s deep roots within black churches.  

Many angry Sanders supporters have criticized the former secretary of State for her use of the term “superpredator” in the past, and last week her husband, former President Bill Clinton, wagged his fingers at Black Lives Matter protesters, who continue to raise the Clintons’ support for 1994 crime bill – a bill Sanders also voted for. And many say they will never vote for Hillary.

But Clinton’s supporters at both events continue to take a more pragmatic approach. Most said they like the Vermont senator, but thought his proposals would never have a chance in the American system of government.  

“I’m hoping that she will be able to pick up where President Obama has left off,” says Doug Miller, a social services worker in the Bronx at the small but boisterous event in Co-op City. “I think she’s well-prepared, more prepared than anybody out there.”

“Bernie Sanders is good, but I believe that his policies may be more challenging,” Mr. Miller continued. “Plus, the way that the Congress is so divided, and the little bipartisanship that we have now, you know we need to get that going, and I don’t think anyone would listen to him.”  

Cudjoe, the retired schoolteacher, says the same.

“To establish a revolution, you're going to need a much bigger mass of people who focus on that change, and really believe that that change can happen,” he says. “I just don't see the forces behind Sanders to allow for that to happen.”

“What happened with President Obama, maybe the same group of people [supporting Sanders] thought that he could achieve a lot more for them in his role as president,” Cudjoe continues. “But there has to be a realization that because of the system of government, all that is limited.”  

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