Why is President Joe Biden losing ground among Black, Hispanic, Asian American and other nonwhite voters?
There’s no easy answer for this relative weakness that shows up in polling, and there might never be one. After all, we still don’t have a definitive explanation for why Donald Trump made big gains among white working-class voters in 2016 or Hispanic voters in 2020, despite the benefit of years of poll questions, final election results and postelection studies.
While the question may be hard, getting the best possible answer matters. Ro Khanna, a Democratic member of Congress and co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign, recently asked me on social media whether the Democratic challenge is the absence of a “compelling economic vision.”
If Democrats believe that’s the answer, Khanna and his colleagues might approach the election differently than if they believe the answer is crime, the migrant crisis or perceptions of a “woke” left. The choice of approach might not only affect who wins, but also the policies and messages promoted on the campaign trail and perhaps ultimately enacted in government.
A definitive answer to our question may be beyond reach, but there’s no shortage of solid hypotheses. The various theories are not mutually exclusive — the best explanation may synthesize all of them.
Theory 1: It’s about the moment — Biden, his age, the economy and abortion.
Why do surveys show Biden struggling among all voters nowadays, regardless of race? The biggest reasons typically cited are inflation, the economy and his age.
In each case, there’s an argument these issues ought to hurt Biden more among nonwhite voters, who tend to be younger and poorer than white voters.
Of all the explanations, these would probably be the most promising for Democrats in the long term. In the short term, Biden could hope to gain ground if inflation continued to lose steam and the economy avoided recession.
For now, he and the Democrats are counting on issues like abortion to compensate for their weaknesses. That might help Democrats among white voters, but it might not help much among nonwhite voters. In New York Times/Siena College polling over the last year, just 64% of nonwhite voters say they believe abortion should be mostly or always legal, a tally that falls beneath usual Democratic bench marks.
On the other hand, 63% of white voters say abortion should be at least mostly legal, a tally greatly exceeding the usual Democratic support among white voters.
The economy and abortion are plainly important in making sense of recent shifts, but they’re not the whole story. Biden was relatively weak among nonwhite voters in 2020, as Hispanic voters swung to the right (by about 7 points of major party vote share) and the rise in Black turnout didn’t match those of other groups. Democrats showed similar — if less acute — weaknesses with these voters in 2018 and during most Trump-era special elections.
Biden’s weaknesses may exacerbate the problem, but this isn’t a new issue.
Theory 2: Democrats are too far to the left.
This theory is brought to you by Democratic centrists, and it’s grounded in an important fact: There are many nonwhite Democrats who self-identify as moderate or even conservative. Many hold conservative views on issues, like opposition to same-sex marriage.
These moderate or conservative nonwhite voters consider themselves Democrats because they see the party as representing them and their interests, not because they have party-line views on every issue. If so, Republican gains among nonwhite voters might naturally result from Democrats’ leftward shift over the last few years.
This story is logical, especially when it comes to Trump’s gains in the last election. But is this really what has hurt Biden since 2020? Democrats didn’t nominate Sanders, after all. Democratic socialism, calls to defund the police and Black Lives Matter seem to be in the rearview mirror in 2023. The backlash against “woke” has faded so much that Republicans barely even brought it up in the first presidential debate.
Even in 2020, the evidence that the progressive left was responsible for Democratic losses among Hispanic voters was more based on correlation than clear causal evidence. Today, the connection seems even less clear. Perhaps the best evidence is Democratic struggles among nonwhite voters in California and New York, where progressive excesses might weigh most heavily.
Theory 3: Democrats aren’t delivering a progressive agenda.
This theory is brought to you by the progressive left. You might be skeptical after walking through the centrist position, but there’s a credible story here.
To understand it, it’s worth untangling two sentiments that we usually assume go together: a desire for big change and progressivism. They’ve gone hand-in-hand in recent Democratic primaries, with progressive candidates offering fundamental or revolutionary change, while liberal, establishment-backed candidates offer relative moderation, bipartisanship or a return to normalcy.
But being a moderate on a left-right ideological scale is not the same thing as being content with the status quo. Many moderates are deeply dissatisfied and want politicians who promise big changes to American life. They may think politics, the economy and the “system” are all broken, even if they’re not animated by progressive slogans like Democratic socialism, a Green New Deal, “Medicare for All,” and so on.
Many nonwhite voters fall into this category. In Times/Siena polling of the key battleground states in 2019, persuadable nonwhite voters said they wanted a relatively moderate Democrat over a liberal, 69% to 29%. But they also preferred a Democratic nominee who would bring systemic change to American society over one who would return politics back to normal in Washington, 52-32. This might seem contradictory, but it’s not.
Biden is not exactly a great fit for these ideologically moderate “change” voters. He does not channel their dissatisfaction with the country, the establishment, politics or the economy. His accomplishments, like the Inflation Reduction Act or the CHIPS Act, do not register on the “fundamental change” spectrum. Perhaps it’s not surprising that voters — including nonwhite voters — don’t seem to think Biden has accomplished very much.
It seems doubtful that a more ambitious, progressive legislative agenda would have left Biden in a very different place. He didn’t seem to earn too much support for student debt forgiveness, for instance. But it’s still possible that the mainstream Democratic Party’s relatively conservative, even Whig-like, form of moderation leaves disaffected, nonwhite working-class voters feeling cold.
Theory 4: It’s Trump.
It’s easy for Democrats to blame themselves for weakness among nonwhite voters. But what if it’s not really Democratic weakness, but Republican strength?
It’s Trump, not Biden, who defines American politics nowadays. Voters say they’re voting based on their feelings toward the former president, not the current one. With numbers like these, perhaps the default assumption ought to be that Trump, not Biden, is the driving force behind recent electoral trends.
If it’s Trump, it’s not hard to see how or why. He has a distinct brand with demonstrated appeal to white working-class voters who previously backed Barack Obama and other Democrats. Many elements of his message might have appeal to nonwhite working-class voters as well. As we’ve established, many persuadable nonwhite voters care about the economy; aren’t liberal; are dissatisfied with the country and mainstream politics; and desire fundamental change. Trump’s combination of populist economics and anti-establishment outsider politics is potentially a very good match.
What about Trump’s penchant to alienate Black and Hispanic voters with remarks like “very fine people on both sides” or “they’re rapists.” Today, some of these fights may be distant memories. And while Trump’s remarks may have hurt him at the time, it is striking that they didn’t do more to provoke a more obvious backlash among nonwhite voters, whether in terms of stronger turnout or greater Democratic support.
Perhaps other elements of his message might have broken through. His views on crime and immigration have considerable appeal to some Black and Hispanic voters, even though these issues are often seen by liberals as nothing more than a racist dog whistle. And Democrats may bristle at the thought of Trump as a criminal justice reformer, but he spent millions on a Super Bowl ad promoting exactly that. Trump’s economic appeal may also be newly salient with continuing perceptions that the economy hasn’t recovered.
Trump’s unique brand of populist conservatism isn’t the full explanation. In the midterms, Republicans overperformed in places like New York City, Florida and Southern California, even though Trump wasn’t on the ticket.
But while Trump isn’t the whole explanation, he’s probably an underrated one. A recent CNN/SSRS poll found him faring much better among nonwhite voters compared with all the other Republican candidates. Biden led Trump, 58-34, among nonwhite voters in the poll, compared with a 64-28 result against Ron DeSantis.
Theory 5: It’s about a new generation.
Democratic strength among nonwhite voters was forged in an earlier era of politics, when the party vanquished Jim Crow and unequivocally represented the working class and the poor. Perhaps that’s still how many Black voters see it, given that they continue to back Biden and Democrats by wide margins in Times/Siena polling.
Younger nonwhite voters might see it differently. At the very least, almost all of Biden’s losses come among nonwhite voters under 45 in Times/Siena polling.
It’s not hard to see how younger nonwhite voters might have a different perspective. The basis for overwhelming Democratic support among nonwhite voters may have gotten weaker over the last 50 years.
Second- and third-generation Asian American and Hispanic voters are more affluent and assimilated into American society than their parents.
Young Black voters may not be second- or third-generation immigrants, but they are the second or third generation since Black Americans finally achieved equal citizenship. They can’t call up memories of the Civil Rights Movement or Jim Crow. They’re less likely to attend church, which helped tie Black voters to the Democratic Party for decades. The bonds of community and sense of threat that connected voters to the Democrats might be weaker today.
The Black Lives Matter movement mobilized a new generation of activists, but also put Democrats in a challenging position: There are few opportunities for Democrats to solve systemic racism. No bill will do it. The party’s claim to being the party of the working class is also quite a bit weaker than it was a half century ago, for good measure.
Of all the theories, this one is hardest to tie to a short-term decline in Biden’s support. But more affluence and integration into mainstream American life might be a prerequisite for today’s Republican gains. And, if true, it would reflect largely positive changes in American society, much as Republican gains among Catholic voters in decades past required their acceptance in the mainstream.
It would be hard for any party to hold 90-plus percent of a voting group forever. And if so, perhaps there’s not much Democrats can do about their decline today. It may be bad news for the Democrats in a certain sense, but if there’s any consolation it’s that perhaps Democrats don’t have to flagellate themselves over it. It’s not all their fault.
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