In the 2008 presidential primary, Democrats chose between a black candidate and a white candidate. Yes, that described the race of the two leading rivals, but also their constituencies: Barack Obama won 82 percent of African-American votes, while Hillary Clinton won most whites, including 62 percent of whites without a college degree.
In 2016, once again, throughout most of the primary campaign, there’s been a black candidate and a white candidate—when it comes to their supporters, anyway. Only this time, it’s Clinton who’s racking up the black vote, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders who has been leading among whites, especially the white working class, while losing roughly 4–1 among the African-American voters who are the bedrock of the Democratic Party. In states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Michigan, Sanders beat Clinton among whites without a college degree. And this time, it’s Sanders who is making the political case for the importance of winning back white voters, particularly working-class whites, to the Democratic Party, as Clinton did eight years ago.
And as I did, too. I began the 2008 primary season thinking Clinton’s support from white working-class voters was a sign that Democrats could make inroads there, and win back so-called Reagan Democrats to the party of FDR. I ended the 2008 contests in despair, seeing Clinton’s attempt to win white votes devolve into her using her support from “hard-working Americans, white Americans” against Obama in a way that rightly repelled African Americans, and me too. By 2012, I no longer saw a way for Democrats to win back vast numbers of whites that didn’t involve somehow negating the power, influence, and interests of African Americans, who have become the most reliable Democratic voters. Negating that influence would be politically stupid as well as morally wrong.
Bernie Sanders is going to eventually have to take in that reality. As he saw his hopes in the South crushed by black voters, who went four or even five to one for Clinton, his campaign made noises—increasingly unpleasant noises, to the ears of some black voters—about how that might change as the race moved from south to north. Campaign manager Jeff Weaver insulted black voters by dismissing Clinton as a “regional” candidate only popular in the South. Jane Sanders, the candidate’s wife and best surrogate, even suggested that the “Obama coalition” was a shopworn, 2008 phenomenon; a new “Sanders coalition” might make it possible for her husband to win with the support of fewer African Americans and more working-class whites.