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In Illinois, Black Voters Didn’t Feel the Bern—But There Are Signs of a Shift

Hillary Clinton won Chicago’s black wards easily, reflecting decades of effective outreach on the part of her and her husband. But what comes next could look a lot different.

Bernie Sanders answers a question from Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters in Hyde Park.   Photo: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune

In the wake of Super Tuesday II, my colleague Luke Seemann built a great map of how Democratic presidential primary votes broke down within Chicago. The map followed familiar lines, this time with Hillary Clinton winning all the plurality black wards in Chicago and  Bernie Sanders winning all but one of the plurality Hispanic wards. (They split the white plurality wards, with Clinton winning the near-north lakefront and Sanders everywhere else.)

   Wards won by Hillary Clinton
   Wards won by Bernie Sanders
Darker colors indicate a bigger share of the vote

This week in the Reader, my former colleague Steve Bogira took a dive into these local results that highlights some of the tensions within the Democratic party that have fallen along racial lines during this primary season:

[Chuy] Garcia was gratified by the Latino vote for Sanders, and disappointed by how strongly the black vote went for Clinton: “I still can’t comprehend why the African-American community remains enamored with the Clintons.”

He’s hardly alone. Bogira sums up the puzzle:

For many blacks on Chicago’s south and west sides, things have been fucked, for lack of a better word, for decades, even under Democratic administrations. And from Hillary’s husband, they got a crime bill that sent more blacks to prison and a welfare “reform” bill that made the poor even poorer.

The clearest explanation I’ve read comes from Slate’s Jamelle Bouie. And it’s not particularly complex:

[Bill Clinton] emphasized his childhood in the segregated South and pledged to appoint blacks to high-ranking positions. In an approach that Barack Obama would mimic 16 years later, Clinton focused his efforts on black civic and community organizations, from church networks to civil rights groups.


All of this left a lasting impression. Black voters didn’t always agree with Clinton, but they liked and—to an extent—trusted him. When Hillary ran for Senate, she took a similar approach, working hard to build ties to New York state’s—and New York City’s—black community. And this outreach informed Bill Clinton’s (highly symbolic) decision to base his post-presidency in Harlem.

Lots and lots of observers, like Garcia, have been puzzled by black voters’ lean towards “symbolic” politics in backing Clinton instead of voting their pocketbook with Sanders. Occasionally this has gotten condescending and ugly. But it shouldn’t be remotely surprising; voting on symbolic political lines for politicians who have been doing explicit outreach for decades is hardly limited to black or Democratic voters. Many words have been spent trying to explain the phenomenon among economically struggling white Republicans.

It’s powerful and it lingers. But it might not be forever.

A couple days ago, Vox’s Victoria Massie noted that, while Sanders may have lost among black voters across the country, he did better among them in the Midwest than in the South. In Southern states, Clinton generally had a 70-80 percentage-point lead in the polls among black voters; in Northern states, including Oklahoma, it was between 35 and 45 percentage points, with a 40-point gap in Illinois. (In Chicago’s black-plurality wards, Clinton’s biggest win was by 36.4 percentage points in the 21st Ward.) That’s a big gap, but it’s also a big difference.

Massie—who describes herself as “one of those skeptical millennial black voters” in terms of her relationship to the status quo—asked the University of Chicago’s Michael Dawson for his explanation. And he pointed to his front door:

Based on his observations in Chicago, Dawson also noted that Sanders has benefited from the organizing efforts of the local young black and brown progressive movement built by organizations like Black Lives Matter Chicago, BYP 100, Assata’s Daughters, and We Charge Genocide, even if they do not directly associate themselves with Sanders’s campaign.

Clinton, as a representative of centrist Democrats, presents something of a unique case, with deep ties to black voters on the basis of years of outreach between her and her husband. That matters, across party and race. But there are signs of a shift among the next generation. Future Democratic candidates could cultivate that if they learn from, rather than continue to be surprised by, the lessons of the Clintons.


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