How Will The Democratic Primary Change Now That It’s Moving To More Diverse States?

Many observers of the 2020 Democratic primary expect that the race will be much different as it moves to states with more diverse electorates. In particular, the expectation is that former Vice President Joe Biden will do better and former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg will do worse. After all, polls have consistently shown Biden leading among black voters and in the top two1 with Hispanic Democrats, and Buttigieg way behind with both groups.

[Our Latest Forecast: Who Will Win The 2020 Democratic Primary?]

But we should be careful not to overstate those assumptions or oversimplify the Democratic primary map. It’s not just that upcoming states are more racially diverse — they’re diverse in many other ways, too. States with large Hispanic electorates may vote differently than those with large black electorates, for example. Black voters in some regions may be more strongly for or against candidate than in others — that’s what happened in the 2016 primaries.

There’s no official document that tells us the makeup of the Democratic electorate in each state. But there was an entrance or exit poll conducted in about half of states during the 2016 Democratic primary. And a group of demographic experts estimated the racial breakdown of voters in all 50 states for each party last year in a report called “States of Change” — a joint effort of the Bipartisan Policy Center, the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress and the Democracy Fund.

I’d put the states into five groups, in terms of the demographic composition of their Democratic electorates as of 2016.2

7 states: majority or plurality white, more than 10 percent black, more than 10 percent Hispanic

The state with the most pledged delegates in this group is New York (274); Nevada has the fewest (36). These are largely states with big overall populations.

States with an estimated 2016 Democratic voter composition that was majority or plurality white, more than 10 percent black and more than 10 percent Hispanic

StateNon-college whiteCollege whiteBlackHispanicAsian/ OtherPledged Delegates
Connecticut31%42%12%11%4%60
Florida302224204219
Illinois283223115155
Nevada34211520936
New Jersey243221158126
New York223322177274
Texas162327295228
TOTAL1,098

Source: “States of Change” estimate of democratic electorates in each state

14 states: majority-white, more than 10 percent black, less than 10 percent Hispanic

Michigan (125) has the most delegates of this group, while Delaware has the fewest (21). These are generally states in the Midwest and Upper South.

States with an estimated 2016 Democratic voter composition that was majority white, more than 10 percent black and less than 10 percent Hispanic

StateNon-college whiteCollege whiteBlackHispanicAsian/ OtherPledged delegates
Arkansas35%24%36%3%2%31
Delaware3226334421
Indiana4431185382
Kansas3644117339
Kentucky4428242254
Michigan42272533125
Missouri3735243268
N. Carolina22304144110
Ohio40312332136
Oklahoma3333205937
Pennsylvania36341964186
Tennessee3124412264
Virginia2034326899
W. Virginia5234111228
TOTAL1,080

Source: “States of Change” estimate of democratic electorates in each state

6 states: majority or plurality white, more than 10 percent Hispanic, less than 10 percent black

California has the most delegates in this group (415), while Utah has the fewest (29). These are generally states in the West.

States with an estimated 2016 Democratic voter composition that was majority or plurality white, more than 10 percent Latino and less than 10 percent black

StateNon-college whiteCollege whiteBlackHispanicAsian/ OtherPledged delegates
Arizona32%30%6%24%7%67
California222882616415
Colorado3243615467
New Mexico1927343834
Rhode Island3840711426
Utah4637211429
TOTAL638

Source: “States of Change” estimate of democratic electorates in each state

14 states: majority white, less than 10 percent black, less than 10 percent Hispanic

This group of states is mostly in the Northeast and Mountain West. (Iowa and New Hampshire fall into this group, but I’m not including them below because they’ve already voted.) North Dakota and Wyoming have the fewest delegates of this bloc (14 each), while Massachusetts has the most (91).

States with an estimated 2016 Democratic voter composition that was majority white and less than 10 percent each Hispanic and black

StateNon-college whiteCollege whiteBlackHispanicAsian/ OtherPledged delegates
Alaska34%36%5%7%19%15
Idaho494117320
Maine554011224
Massachusetts334787591
Minnesota414382575
Montana494013719
Nebraska444095229
N. Dakota513842514
Oregon414328761
S. Dakota494022816
Vermont504512316
Washington4140461089
Wisconsin473794384
Wyoming493828314
TOTAL567

Source: “States of Change” estimate of democratic electorates in each state

6 states and D.C.: majority or plurality black

Washington, D.C. (20) and Mississippi have the fewest delegates (36) of this bloc, while Georgia has the most (105). These states are all in the South.

States with an estimated 2016 Democratic voter composition that was majority or plurality black

StateNon-college whiteCollege whiteBlackHispanicAsian/ OtherPledged delegates
Alabama13%13%71%1%1%52
D.C.438476520
Georgia14195944105
Louisiana1316663254
Maryland1527455796
Mississippi87841036
S. Carolina1920572254
TOTAL417

Source: “States of Change” estimate of democratic electorates in each state

We haven’t forgotten Asian, Native American and other racial and ethnic voting groups. But Hawaii, where a plurality of voters are Asian, is the only state where the largest bloc of Democratic voters is not black, Hispanic or white. (The “States of Change” study suggests that the Democratic electorate is also more than 10 percent Asian or comprised of other ethnic groups/races — i.e., not black, Hispanic or white — in Alaska, California and Washington.)

Looking at the race this way suggests several things about the Democratic primary race this year.

The results in Nevada will be really telling

Critics of Buttigieg have emphasized that he has done well in two states that are significantly more white than the Democratic electorate overall. That’s a fair criticism. According to a Pew Research Center survey from 2018, about 59 percent of Democratic voters are white, 19 percent are black, 12 percent are Hispanic, and the rest are Asian or of other ethnic/racial groups. There are still upcoming states that are very white like Iowa and New Hampshire, but they don’t have that many delegates.

Biden and his allies have emphasized his potential to win South Carolina, but that state is also fairly unrepresentative of the Democratic Party, since its electorate is significantly more African American, less white and less Hispanic than the overall Democratic electorate. States with the general racial makeup of South Carolina don’t have many delegates, either.

Nevada is really the only early-voting state that has a Democratic electorate broadly similar to the national Democratic electorate. And Nevada shows why our forecast model thinks much more highly of Sanders’s chances than Buttigieg’s: Sanders has shown more signs of winning over non-white voters — particuarly young black voters and Hispanic voters — and he currently leads in our Nevada polling average (though we haven’t gotten new polling there in a long time).

Lots of candidates may succeed on Super Tuesday

On March 3, 14 states vote, along with American Samoa and Democrats who live abroad. Those state contests come from all five of the groups above. Some are overwhelmingly white, such as Maine and Minnesota. At the opposite end of the spectrum: Asian, black and Hispanic voters combined will likely account for nearly half or more of the electorate in California, Virginia and Texas. Blacks alone will represent a majority of voters in Alabama.3

The Democratic nominating contest is about winning delegates, not states. California’s 415 pledged delegates are almost double the combined total of Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont (206). But Buttigieg could perform well in these 14 states even if his support doesn’t grow much beyond white voters — as long as he can win white voters in states where he hasn’t had months to campaign, like he did in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Let’s say Sanders or Warren “should” win the Super Tuesday states in the Northeast (Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont) and that Biden “should” win Alabama, based on his black support. Outside of those contests, the states on Super Tuesday don’t present a clear advantage to any specific candidate — California, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, in particular, are likely to have the kind of mix of voters that reflects the Democratic Party overall.

Black voters outside the South could be an important bloc

In 2016, Sanders won less than 20 percent of the black vote against Hillary Clinton in 10 of the 12 states in the South where we got exit poll data. But in all 10 states outside the South where we have exit poll data of black voters, Sanders cleared 20 percent, and hit the 30s in a few of them (such as Wisconsin).4

In a one-on-race with Clinton, Sanders’s stronger showings with non-Southern black voters didn’t matter a ton — the former secretary of state won the black vote in every state, racking up huge delegate margins by winning areas with large black electorates.

But in a multi-candidate race, this distinction could matter more. If Biden is strongest with black voters in the South — and perhaps weaker with, for example, black voters in the Midwest — his delegate math starts to look a lot more difficult.

There could be a diploma divide

Race was the key demographic divide in the 2008 and 2016 Democratic primaries — largely because one candidate (Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton in 2016) won a very high percentage of the black vote. But there is no guarantee that black voters will mobilize so heavily behind one candidate again. And in 2016, education was a big divide, too.

In the 27 states where we have exit polls of white voters broken up by education levels, Clinton won among college graduates in 16.5 Among white Democratic primary voters who were not college graduates, Sanders won in 17 of the 25 states where we have data. (We have fairly limited data on Asian, black and Hispanic voters by education levels.) White college graduates and whites without degrees each represent around 30 percent of the Democratic electorate.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders won among white non-college graduates, while Buttigieg did better with white college graduates. That’s a dynamic worth watching during the rest of the primary. States like Colorado and Connecticut, in particular, may be fertile ground for Buttigieg because they have a lot of white Democrats with degrees and not that many white Democrats without degrees. Meanwhile, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan and West Virginia represent the opposite, potentially favoring Sanders or Biden if he recovers from his weak finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.


Footnotes

  1. Along with Bernie Sanders.

  2. The numbers below come from the “States of Change” report and are based on “eligible voter composition estimates, turnout rates, and support rates for 32 demographic groups” from general elections. Many voters do not vote in primaries, so the primary electorate may be different. We used these numbers because they offer a general portrait of the Democratic electorate in all 50 states. We wouldn’t recommend getting too hung up on the exact figures in each state. Also, we use the terms “white” and “Hispanic,” as opposed to say, “non-Hispanic white” and “Latino” because that is the language used in the States of Change report.

  3. The other Super Tuesday states are Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, and Vermont.

  4. We used the U.S. Census Bureau’s regions. Sanders won more than 20 percent of the black vote in Maryland and Oklahoma, two states officially in the South. He won less than 20 percent of the black vote in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — all states in the South. He won more than 20 percent of the black vote in Connecticut, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — all states outside of the South.

  5. Sanders won in 10, and the two were tied in one state (Iowa).

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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