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The Black Establishment Chooses Clinton

Iowa and New Hampshire were sorting-hats for both the Democratic and Republican races, prompting a cascade of presidential candidates to drop out and giving us more information on what voters want. But not all voters. The small numbers of black voters in those states, in contrast to the strength of the black vote within the Democratic electorate nationally, leave a lot of unanswered questions about how Hillary Clinton will do against Bernie Sanders in the weeks to come.

On Thursday, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) PAC, the lobbying and fundraising arm representing black lawmakers on Capitol Hill, endorsed Clinton. It’s a politically important moment, but it doesn’t answer the question of whether black voters, particularly millennials, will stick with Clinton. After all, both national polls and the New Hampshire results show Sanders fares extremely well with young voters, and polls show Clinton winning most black voters. And the Democratic establishment is almost entirely in Clinton’s camp. So is the CBC PAC endorsement an indication that post-New Hampshire, black voters will stay with Clinton or simply that the establishment will stay with Clinton?

We’ll get some answers soon: The Democratic caucuses in Nevada, a state that is 9 percent black, take place on Feb. 20. South Carolina’s Democratic primary is the following weekend, on Feb. 27. The state is 28 percent black, and black voters are the majority of the state’s Democratic electorate.

Black voters face a series of conundrums when voicing policy positions and choosing candidates. For example, a University of Chicago study last year found that the policy preferences and desires of the black community are rarely reflected in national and state laws, with an inverse relationship between black support and a law’s chance of passage. (That’s true for Latinos and women as well.)

Examining a political candidate requires evaluating his or her policy positions, electability, and ability to get things done once in office. Given the Chicago study, any politician successfully advancing issues of importance to black Americans must measure the potential for legislative backlash. That could argue for black voters choosing candidates who know how to deal with the intricacies of Congressional deal-making, not just in public but behind the scenes. In other words: establishment politics.

What the CBC PAC’s endorsement unequivocally does is put the weight of the black political establishment behind Clinton, arguing that she has more sway on issues of black interest than Sanders, including the issues Sanders has highlighted during his campaign. CBC chair Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, said, “We must have a president who is knowledgeable on both domestic and foreign policy. Black lives are being lost on the streets of America because of police misconduct and gang violence…and so we must have a president that understands the racial divide.”

If the endorsement primary is one of the best ways to measure candidate viability, Clinton is winning hands-down over Sanders, and the CBC PAC endorsement could be seen simply as icing on the cake. One CBC member, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, declined to join in the group endorsement, saying that he wanted to hear the opinions of voters in his home state, a political powerhouse in the primaries. In 2008, Barack Obama won the Democratic primary in South Carolina after a pivotal moment in which some black political leaders switched their endorsements from Clinton to Obama.

There’s no question that the two Democratic candidates left standing are making a full-on play for black voters concerned with racial and economic equity. After a verbal kerfuffle with Black Lives Matter activists early in his campaign, Sanders has repeated his commitment to improving issues around race and policing, as well as the economy. In his victory speech after the New Hampshire primary, for example, he stated: “[W]hen we talk about transforming America, it means ending the disgrace of this country having more people in jail than any other country in the world, disproportionately African-American, and Latino. Not only are we going to fight to end institutional racism, and a broken criminal justice system, we are going to provide jobs and education for our young people, not jails and incarceration.” Clinton, in her concession speech, offered similar themes, stating: “We also have to break through the barriers of bigotry. African-American parents shouldn’t have to worry that their children will be harassed, humiliated, even shot because of the color of their skin.”

Clinton has gotten support from other leading black figures like former New York chapter NAACP chair Hazel Dukes, as well as many local representatives across the country; while Sanders has been supported by MacArthur fellowship winner and best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates and former national NAACP chair Benjamin Jealous. Regardless of which leaders weigh in on what black voters want, in the end it will be black voters themselves who make the choice, with the key test of South Carolina right around the corner.

CLARIFICATION (Feb. 11, 9:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article referred incompletely in a few instances to the organization that endorsed Hillary Clinton on Thursday. As the beginning of the article correctly noted, it was the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, not the Congressional Black Caucus itself.

Check out our live coverage of the Republican debate.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.