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The Catch-22 Facing Black Voters At The Ballot Box

Black voters face a catch-22 — a long-running catch-22, sure, but no less of a problem because of that.

The 2022 midterms are approaching and Black voters must choose between the Republican Party, which has actively worked against their interests for decades, and the Democratic Party, which has long struggled to meaningfully address race and racism, as well as issues important to Black voters — such as police reform and federal voting rights legislation.

The sad thing, at least for most Black voters, is it’s an easy choice. In the last 60 years or so, the Democratic Party, despite its many failures, has done far more for Black voters than the GOP. That’s why the vast majority of Black voters cast ballots for Democrats even if they aren’t necessarily liberal themselves. And therein lies the problem: Because Democratic leaders know that most Republican candidates aren’t a truly viable option for Black voters, the Democratic Party doesn’t have much incentive to court members of its most loyal constituency.

As former FiveThirtyEight senior reporter Farai Chideya wrote back in 2016, Black voters are so loyal that they’re considered “captured” — a theory put forth by Paul Frymer, a professor of politics at Princeton University, in a 1999 book titled “Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America.” In other words, they’re ignored by one major party and taken for granted by the other. 

“In recent elections, there’s normally some sort of conversation around what direction Latino or Asian Americans are going to swing,” said Jennifer Chudy, a professor of political science at Wellesley College. That “reveals the predicament Black voters are in because there’s not even a curiosity surrounding what they’ll do. … And I think they’re unique in that way.”

Making the situation even more intractable is the fact that overt appeals to Black voters, especially from presidents or presidential hopefuls, are viewed as disruptive to both Democrats’ and Republicans’ non-Black coalitions, Frymer told me. Given the prevalence of racism in America, there’s a widespread belief that promoting certain civil rights causes important to Black voters are not “winning” issues — or, put more bluntly, that a candidate or party will lose white voters by promoting those issues.

So what can Black voters do?

To try to answer that question, we first need to understand what’s led to this predicament.

There was a time in the early 20th century when Black Americans were just as likely to identify as Republicans as Democrats. At its national convention in 1926, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) even went so far as to reportedly declare that, “Our political salvation and our social survival lie in our absolute independence of party allegiance in politics …”

That started to shift mildly around the mid-1930s, however. By then, Black voters were becoming increasingly Democratic — driven by the party’s progressive economic and civil rights politics, emerging in New Deal programs and actions like the desegregation of the military. (This is not to say that the New Deal uniformly advanced civil rights — some programs actually further entrenched racial inequities.)

Some racial liberalism still existed within the GOP at this point, but it enjoyed its last hurrah in the 1960s when the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, both Democrats, addressed escalating calls from Black Americans to end systemic segregation and to help alleviate their political and economic disenfranchisement. These increasing demands were solidified by Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alongside the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“With these actions, Johnson and national party leaders wrested the direction of the party away from the southern bloc of the Democratic Party, which had been staunchly committed to advancing a platform of white dominance and Black subjugation since the Civil War,” said Davin Phoenix, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine.

It didn’t take long for a white backlash to occur, and that backlash was concentrated in the GOP. Opponents of the 1964 law included rising GOP stars like Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater and future president George H.W. Bush. Following its passage, Republicans began aggressively pursuing a “Southern strategy” focused on appeals to racially conservative white Americans who felt abandoned by or disillusioned with the Democratic Party’s increasingly multiracial coalition. Despite losing the 1964 presidential election to Johnson, Goldwater won a number of predominantly white Southern states. And four years later, former President Richard Nixon continued — and arguably perfected — this playbook through overt appeals to Southern white voters who felt like the political advances of Black Americans came at their direct expense.

Fast forward to today, and an overwhelming majority of Black Americans identify as Democrats — something that’s been true for decades.

And party identification understates Black Americans preference for Democrats, as many people who identify as independents consistently vote Democratic. Roughly 90 percent of Black voters typically vote Democratic — a higher share than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. In 2016, 91 percent of Black voters backed Hillary Clinton over former President Donald Trump; in 2020, 92 percent backed President Biden. 

As mentioned, though, those lopsided margins come at a price. Given that there’s often no confusion regarding how Black voters will cast their ballot, Democrats often get away with far more symbolic representation to appease their most loyal constituency rather than further prioritizing Black voters’ concerns and agendas. (There is lots of research showing Black political interests are underserved in policymaking.)

“Black voters may find themselves steadily more disillusioned with Democrats, but they face no viable electoral alternative, since Republicans are an even more unsatisfactory choice,” Phoenix said. “Thus, Black people are distinctly positioned to have to choose the lesser of two evils.”

Of course, Black voters aren’t the only constituency loyal to one of the two major political parties. An overwhelming majority of white evangelical Protestant voters (84 percent) supported Trump in 2020, for example, according to the Pew Research Center; roughly 64 percent of LGBT voters supported Biden that same year, according to exit polling data. Those margins aren’t quite as lopsided as the ones by which Black voters favor Democrats, but those extra percentage points aren’t the only thing that makes Black voters unique.

Instead, what makes Black voters’ situation different is that anti-Blackness has long been a fundamental force in American politics — on both sides of the aisle. 

“A lot of our party structure, in terms of where people situate themselves, is largely influenced by their racial attitudes and what racial groups they belong to,” said LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, a professor of politics at Princeton University. “It’s often easy to mobilize behind anti-Blackness or some sort of irrational fear of what Black people are going to do.”

In other words, Black voters are “captured” not simply because most favor Democrats, but because overt appeals to them are seen as disruptive to the rest of both party’s coalitions. But other voting blocs don’t necessarily experience the same thing. So, for example, Republicans can court white evangelicals because direct overtures to this group — for example, promoting anti-abortion policies, Christian values or legislation against transgender students and athletes — won’t turn off a majority of Republican voters. Certain civil rights issues that would have the greatest impact on Black voters, in contrast, are seen as too taboo to promote because being pro-Black is often conflated with being anti-white. As a result, politicians on both sides of the aisle often ignore Black voters’ concerns because they don’t want to take steps that would either turn off white voters or make it seem like they’re disrupting the existing racial hierarchies of power where white people are at the top.  

“Both Democrats and Republicans go after suburban moms because they’re not destabilizing to either party. Same with both parties going after farmers or different business interests. Most groups are not considered destabilizing,” Frymer said. “But because of the pervasiveness and systemic nature of racism in America, parties often stress the importance of building and expanding their white coalition.” 

The fear that supporting issues typically associated with Black voters — for example, decreasing spending on police, or supporting the Black Lives Matter movement or reparations — will alienate non-Black voters isn’t irrational. Many of these policies and positions aren’t widely popular with white voters, even Democratic ones.

How white and Black Democrats view policies aimed at addressing racial wealth and income inequality

Percentage of respondents who support or agree with each policy, issue or statement

policy or statement Pollster month/year
of poll
White Dems Black Dems Gap
Police officers can generally not be trusted Data for Progress June 2020 33% 71% -38
Police do only a fair or poor job of protecting people from crime Pew Research June 2020 50 72 -22
Our country has "not gone far enough" in giving Black people equal rights with white people Pew Research Jan.-Feb. 2019 64 82 -18
Confederate monuments should be removed from public spaces ABC News/Ipsos June 2020 68 84 -16
U.S. military bases named after Confederate leaders should be renamed ABC News/Ipsos June 2020 63 73 -10
Policy or issue Pollster month/year
of poll
White Dems Black Dems Gap
Wealth tax Reuters/Ipsos Dec. 2019 82% 69% +13
Nationscape June-July 2020 82 71 +11
Reparations AP-NORC Sept. 2019 28 81 -54
Gallup June-July 2019 32 80 -48
ABC/Ipsos June 2020 36 78 -42
Nationscape June-July 2020 33 69 -36
Vice/Ipsos Jan. 2020 34 68 -34

Each poll used slightly different question wording; respondents were counted in favor if they said they somewhat or strongly supported the idea or statement, or if they said the policy should be enacted. The Nationscape question on a wealth tax asked specifically about raising taxes on households making more than $600,000 annually.

Numbers may not add up due to rounding.

“Racism is a critical reason for the Republican Party’s reluctance to court Black votes,” Frymer said. “And if the Democratic Party promotes Black voters’ interests visibly, they might lose those soccer moms or the NASCAR dads or Reagan Democrats. So, instead, the party distances itself from its Black base and from Black voters.” 

This dynamic aligns with research showing that making race-based appeals can lower support for a policy proposal. According to a recent preprint from Yale University political scientists Micah English and Joshua Kalla, highlighting the benefits racial minorities receive from ostensibly race-neutral progressive policies actually decreased support for these policies. In fact, respondents were slightly more likely to support policies framed around class rather than race, they found. “Democrats’ use of racial frames in describing their progressive policies may inadvertently make it harder for them to adopt public policies that will advance racial justice,” the duo concluded. These takeaways have been given more life recently, as prominent data scientists have argued that Democrats should not engage with Republicans on issues related to race and immigration and instead focus on “kitchen-table” issues like the economy. 

“Given the insistence on adhering to the easily debunked logic that advancing issues that disproportionately benefit Black voters comes at the expense of white Americans — who remain coded in political discourse as ‘everyday’ Americans — there is an implicit association between ‘popular’ and ‘white,’” Phoenix said. “This is important, because so-called bread and butter issues that ostensibly benefit the broadest swath of Americans still have racially distinct effects on different groups within the electorate.”

Whatever the truth of this school of thought — and there have been many rebuttals to its arguments — it often results in ignoring Black voters’ concerns out of fear of rebuffing white voters. We see examples of this in the current administration, too, as Biden has let issues important to Black voters slip through the cracks. Despite campaign promises to radically change policing following the murder of George Floyd, a police reform bill never passed Congress. And on culture war issues, like critical race theory, Democrats have adopted a similar tactic: Ignore or underplay the stakes of such debates because doing otherwise might activate white parents’ fears of a more progressive school curriculum that teaches children about race and racism and drive traditionally Democratic blocs, like suburban voters, to cast their ballots for Republican candidates.

But it’s not clear how much longer Democrats can continue doing this without suffering electorally. According to recent reports, plenty of Black activists and Black Democratic political actors are beginning to sour on Biden and have expressed a desire for more than appointments and platitudes to solidify future support.

“Republicans want to uphold the racial status quo and Democrats don’t want to be perceived as being too racially liberal,” Stephens-Dougan said. “But there’s a tightrope for Democrats to walk here because they still need Black people to go to the polls and vote for them.” 

That leads us back to our initial question: What can Black voters do?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way out of “captured” status. In order to do so, a large amount of Black votes must be up for grabs, which doesn’t seem likely. 

Of course, Black voters do have another choice besides voting for Democrats or Republicans: sitting out future elections entirely (or voting for third-party candidates). But it’s not clear how viable of an option that is given the increasingly illiberal nature of the GOP.

“If they don’t turn out then potentially you end up with a Trump-like figure in office,” Stephens-Dougan said. “And while that could send a message to the Democratic Party to not take your votes for granted, it arguably ends in a worse outcome than if they had turned out and helped elect a Democrat who was closer to their preferences. The cost of sending a message or a signal to the party might be too costly for a lot Black people.”

That leaves Black voters with two other options. First, they could put their electoral weight behind local, state and congressional officeholders, instead of focusing on change at the federal level (i.e., the presidency). According to various political scientists I spoke with for this piece, including Candis Watts Smith of Duke University, there’s a lot to be said for this approach. 

“Those down-ballot prosecutors, judges, sheriffs and school boards match quite well with issues of criminal justice, public resources and education,” she said. “Given that those are the issues that many Black voters care about and the issues that influence people on a day-to-day basis, it makes sense for Black voters to focus on the positions of the elected officials who can do the work that they want them to do.”

We’ve seen examples of this recently. Take, for example, the 2018 and 2020 elections when a slate of progressive candidates who made overt appeals to Black voters and other voters of color won their congressional races. Indeed, the large numbers of racially conservative white voters who vote at the national level aren’t always present in many states and congressional districts.

Alternatively, Black voters could try to overcome racist messaging and hope that public opinion on certain issues related to race and racism changes. That’s a tall ask, especially in the near term, according to the experts I spoke with, because it’s highly unlikely any political figure would be able to overcome the anti-Black tendencies of many white voters. 

That said, there is a problem with simply looking at the polling above and declaring pro-Black issues political losers: Public opinion is fluid. It can change quickly — even if only for a brief period of time. And on a longer time horizon, lasting change does happen. Especially when talking about civil rights issues, which often involve a minority making demands of society at large, large-scale change is almost always unpopular to start with — if it wasn’t, the demand or protest wouldn’t be required in the first place. Case in point: Civil rights marches and Martin Luther King Jr. were viewed negatively by a majority of the public in the 1960s. Both are viewed overwhelmingly positively now.

Does that put the onus on Black activists, voters and their allies to convince politicians that the issues important to them are worthwhile, then? Frymer, at least, argued that might be the case. “This is unfair, yeah, but the reality is that parties are rarely going to mobilize and change on their own unless they perceive that the political calculus has changed in their favor,” he said. 

Others, however, including Phoenix and Smith, felt differently. 

“The reason Black voters are in captured status is because there’s arguably only one party for them to choose from,” Smith said. “If Republicans decided they wanted to be a multiracial party, then the range of choices for Black voters would increase by 100 percent.” 

Regardless of the choice that the Democratic Party and Black voters make, though, they should also acknowledge that public opinion on race-related issues isn’t as malleable as, say, public views on Russia, free trade and the media. That’s because, as Phoenix told me, “many white voters have by and large reinterpreted long-standing issues and partisan debates through a racial lens, increasing the influence of their senses of racial conservatism, aggrievement and plain old-fashioned prejudice on their political decision-making.” 

Perhaps the greatest thing working in Black voters’ favor is that the electorate is quickly diversifying and these changing numbers might eventually force politicians to stop placing white voters at the center of the political universe. “By discarding the outmoded zero-sum framing of race-relevant policy issues and framing their commitment to advancing the interests of Black voters as broadly benefitting all, the Democratic Party can increase its electoral odds in the immediate, and especially the long-term future,” Phoenix said.

In the future, then, it’s possible that politicking will instead call on all groups to engage and compromise on issues important to other constituencies beyond themselves.

CORRECTION (May 1, 2022, 7:27 p.m.): This article has been updated to correct the name of Wellesley College.

Alex Samuels was a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.


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