Executive Summary:

The current state of public-opinion polling, at least when it comes to the Black community is, at best, uneven. The methodology is seldom rigorous; theory is (charitably) underdeveloped. Yet, it’s common knowledge that the Black community is key to the success of the Democratic party, something especially true in 2020.[1] In a closely-divided electorate in which turnout and accurately gauging preferences can mean the difference between winning and losing, rigorous, theory-driven analysis of the Black electorate is desperately needed.

Toward this end, TargetSmart (TS), in conjunction with Black Insights Research (BIR), conducted six focus groups as a first step in a larger project. The present study was undertaken to identify the sources underlying the political mobilization (or lack thereof) of the Black community, especially low-propensity voters. We explored several hypotheses related to the mobilization of the Black community, including political trust, empowerment, policy/issues, threats, etc. We also sought to identify the extent to which each source of political mobilization applies to high- and low-propensity voters, respectively. After all, it could be the case that low and high-propensity voters are motivated by different things. As it turns out, high- and low-propensity voters sometimes see things quite differently, driven in the main by varying levels of race consciousness by group. Indeed, low-propensity voters invoke race and racism with more frequency than their more politically-engaged counterparts. (This comports well with patterns we observed in word clouds we generated based on the group discussions.)  For the balance of the Executive Summary, we highlight relevant theories in parentheses, adjacent to the questions included in the interview guide. After this overview, we elaborate on our findings in the report.

Key Findings

Issue concerns. The sessions opened with two questions: 1) What are the three most important issues you face and, 2) What are the three most important issues the country faces? For the first question, the individuals’ consensus response referred to the economy in some way: jobs, inflation, housing, and cost of living. There were also scattered references to racism and reproductive rights. However, when the focus shifted to important issues faced by the country, daylight emerged between low- and high-propensity voters. For the most part, high-propensity voters zeroed in on voting rights and the extent to which society remains polarized, whereas low-propensity voters were all over racism and racialized political issues, such as gerrymandering. We recognize that voting rights and gerrymandering are related, connected by racism and the concept of free and fair elections. Nonetheless, the difference in emphasis is relevant.

Motivation for voting/participation in the political process (collective sacrifice.) We followed with a question that asked about the extent to which resolving the above issues motivated participation in the political process. Many times, respondents replied that they were motivated to participate out of a sense of sacrifices made by their ancestors for the right to vote, indicative of the symbolic import of voting beyond the registration of preferences. Another motive to which respondents referred is that voting is a civic responsibility. Having said this, one group, i.e., high-propensity voters, was far more proactive than their counterparts. For instance, when pressed on whether or not resolution of the aforementioned issues encouraged them to vote, the former (high-propensity) group mentioned voting for change and voting as a means of avoiding fascism; the latter had very little faith that their vote meant anything. In other words, the responses of the low-propensity group suggested they believed the system was corrupt.

Trump and MAGA. (Threat.) Another set of questions required respondents to consider their feelings about Trump and his supporters, and whether or not they pose a threat to the Black community. Consensus was achieved here. Both groups think Trump and his supporters are racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, and a threat to the community. All of which is to say that threat motivates participation as well, especially from the high-propensity group.

Perceptions of the Republican Party. (Threat.) We followed up with a question on the GOP. We thought this a good idea given the “Never Trump” wing of the party, suggesting that Trump and the GOP aren’t coextensive. The high-propensity group certainly sees it this way. Several mentioned how the MAGA wing of the party is extreme, relative to the more “traditional” wing, and that the GOP isn’t the problem: the problem is Trump and his followers. On the contrary, low-propensity voters believe the GOP is a threat to the Black community, and not at all conservative. In short, they essentially see the GOP and Trump as the same entity.

Biden and the Democratic Party. (Trust.) Lots on which to chew here. The high-propensity group is ambivalent about Biden, with some willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Some think it’s not Biden’s fault that his presidency has not been more successful, but more think he’s simply not up to the job. As far as the party is concerned, many believe the Dems aren’t doing much, especially for Black folks. Others in the high-propensity group believe the party has good intentions, but the execution is off.

The low-propensity crowd feels the same about Biden. Like their counterparts, this group is split on Biden: some pro, others con. However, their view of the party is almost universally negative. In fact, one respondent called the party “soft.”

Party leadership, and Black leaders in the party. (Trust/Empowerment.) We thought it wise to consider party leadership apart from the party as an institution. Likewise, for one of our theories—empowerment—it’s wise to assess Black leaders in the party separately from white leadership. It seems that the high-propensity group has, on balance, a favorable impression of party leadership. The same can be said of their perception of Black leadership, i.e., prominent Black-elected officials. Again, support isn’t universal, but it’s more or less positive, with one exception: Vice President Harris. By and large, they believe VP Harris to be a non-factor.

We observed different results among low-propensity voters. For instance, while they’re okay with Senator Bernie Sanders, they really don’t like Nancy Pelosi. On the party, they’re very skeptical: better than it was before Obama, but still can’t be trusted. Furthermore, this group didn’t have a whole lot to say about Black leadership at all; several didn’t even know the identities of Black leaders. That said, they believe Harris to be missing in action (MIA) and too performative.

Black people on the ballot. (Empowerment.) Again, this is an issue on which the two groups mostly disagree. Race matters, but not all the time. For example, in the high-propensity group, Obama’s first candidacy turned folks out. However, beyond Obama’s candidacy, others said no: a Black candidate doesn’t necessarily encourage them to turn out. They’re concerned that not all Black folk think alike, and believe the right white candidates can effectively represent Black preferences. (Clarence Thomas was mentioned more than once.)

In the low-propensity group, Black candidates receive a warmer reception. For them, such candidacies evoke pride, and stoke increased interest relative to cycles absent Black candidates, even if it doesn’t necessarily result in their support of Black candidates.

On the prospect for a Black political party. (Empowerment.) At an institutional level, we were curious about demand for a Black political party. After all, satisfaction with the Democratic party is fairly mixed in the Black electorate. But, for the most part, we didn’t observe demand for a Black political party. Both groups were very skeptical about this. In the high-propensity group, for instance, some say “yes,” but more suggest that race is necessary but not a sufficient condition to support a new party – substantive policy preferences matter more. Low-propensity respondents question the capability of a Black party to effectively represent its core constituents.

Capitol Riots. (Threat.) We also examined the perceived threat posed by the Capitol Riot. If nothing else, we hypothesized that such a brazen display of defiance and violence might inspire Black folks to turn out. We appear to be only half right. All groups thought the event was out of control. To a person, if Black people (or any other minority) had tried something similar, they all said it would’ve been a massacre: law enforcement would’ve slaughtered them. Only a group of entitled white people, they argued, could get away with something of this kind. However, where the riot energized high-propensity voters, mainly to prevent the MAGA-led GOP from taking over the country, it seems that low-propensity voters are frustrated with the pace of justice, literally and figuratively. They don’t believe anyone of consequence will ever answer for what they’ve done, something that further dampens faith in the system.

***

As this summary makes all too clear, the respective high- and low-propensity groups part company more often than they remain united. What’s more, the departures span all theoretical domains, if not all questions. Tangible differences appear to exist when it comes to institutional trust/confidence, as well as threat and empowerment. Now, we must ask whether or not we can trust the results. One reason for doubt is the chance that people who agree to participate in focus groups are systematically different from the population, something that typically raises questions about external validity. Another reason is associated with assessing the explanatory power of competing theories simultaneously, something not easily handled through the use of focus groups.

Recommendations

One approach that addresses these issues is a survey. This permits us to increase our confidence in the external validity, while allowing us to assess the explanatory power of competing hypotheses. In a multivariate setting in which all competing explanations are considered simultaneously, some hypotheses may no longer prove valid. Further, implementing a longitudinal design, i.e., pre-post data collection with recontacts, aims to shed light on the durability of competing theoretical claims. For example, will perceived threat move Black people even more after the election if the GOP recovers the House and Senate? We can speculate, but this is ultimately an empirical question, one we aimed to answer.

 

[1] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/how-we-rise/2020/11/24/how-black-americans-saved-biden-and-american-democracy/?preview_id=1232443