The South Carolina Democratic Primary occurred on February 27, 2016. Secretary Clinton won that primary, but Senator Bernie Sanders won the youth vote narrowly. A majority of young voters were African American, and Secretary Clinton won 61% of their votes while losing other young voters by about three-to-one. In this post, we look more closely at the South Carolina exit polls to explore how racial identities and issues are playing out for youth in the Democratic primary.
Candidate Support by Race and Ethnicity
Before South Carolina, Senator Sanders had been drawing four out of five young Democratic voters in each primary or caucus state. However, polling suggested that he had relatively weak support among African American and Latino Democrats. Thus, when the primary campaign turned to South Carolina, where African Americans make up a larger proportion of the population than in the previous contests, the question arose whether young African Americans would opt for Sanders—like predominantly white Millennials in Iowa and New Hampshire—or else support Clinton, as older African Americans were expected to do.
Indeed, 61% of all South Carolina Democratic primary voters identified as Black in the exit polls. A similar proportion (59%) of voters under 30 identified as Black, and just 3% of the under-30s said they are Hispanic/Latino.
Clinton won the South Carolina primary by a 3-to-1 margin but lost the 17-to-29-year-old vote narrowly, 46% to 53%. However, the exit polls show that young African Americans 30 preferred Clinton to Sanders by 61% to 37%. Along with her overwhelming 96% support from African Americans aged 60 or more, the support of African-American youth was critical to her lopsided win.
The sample size for Whites under 30 is too small for the exit polls to report how that group voted, but given what we know about the South Carolina African American youth vote and the overall youth vote, we can estimate that young Whites likely preferred Sanders by about three-to-one, roughly similar to the margins he had achieved in the heavily White Northern states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
South Carolina provides evidence that Sanders’ generational appeal extends to African Americans, but not by enough to overcome Clinton’s appeal to Black voters. These results raise intriguing questions about how African American Millennials differ, both from White Millennials and from older African Americans.
Candidates and Race Relations
Race relations was an important issue among all primary voters in South Carolina. There were no large differences between youth and all voters on this issue.
Half (50%) of South Carolina Democratic primary voters said they would trust either Sanders or Clinton to handle race relations, but 35% preferred Clinton to Sanders on that issue and only 10% preferred Sanders. Unfortunately, the exit polls do not report answers to that question for young African Americans alone, but among young voters (59% of whom were Black), more thought Sanders would handle race relations better than Clinton. Indeed, 24% of under-30 voters thought Sanders would do a better job on race relations than Clinton, and just 14% thought that she would be better. Seventy-six percent of young voters—versus 49% of all South Carolina Democratic voters—called Sanders’ positions on issues “about right.” This may suggest that young African Americans understand politicians’ stances on issues in somewhat different ways than older African Americans do.
Given a choice of four issues, 44% of all South Carolina Democratic primary voters chose the economy/jobs as most important, 21% each picked health care and economic inequality, and 10% picked terrorism. Young South Carolinians were slightly less likely than older voters to choose terrorism (just 7%) and slightly more likely to select income inequality (28%), which is a signature issue for Sanders. Young African-American voters prioritized economy/jobs (46%), then health care (22%) and income inequality (21%), while 9% answered terrorism.
South Carolina Democratic primary voters as a whole overwhelmingly supported continuing the policies of President Obama (74%), while another 16% wanted the next administration to be more liberal and just 5% wanted it to be less liberal. Young voters were more supportive of a liberal shift (33%) than older voters, and even less enthusiastic about moving in a more conservative direction (1%). Since Clinton has positioned herself as the candidate who would continue the policies of the Obama administration, whereas Sanders would move left, it is not surprising that Clinton would win the South Carolina primary but that Sanders would win the overall youth vote.
Asked where they would place themselves on the political spectrum, there were very modest differences by age and race. Fifty-four percent of all South Carolinians who voted in the primary called themselves “liberals,” compared to 53% of young African Americans and 59% of all young people.
African Americans under 30 who voted in the South Carolina primary were relatively educated and economically well-off. According to 2015 data, just about half (50.3%) of South Carolinians between the ages of 18 and 29 had never attended college. But of Black primary voters under 30, over 80% had at least some college experience (including current college students who are on a path to graduate). The exit poll results are thus most representative of young African Americans on a college track.
Given the small samples of Latino, Asian, and White South Carolina Democrats, the exit polls do not provide much information about those subgroups.
Contacting Young People (Or Not)
Young people were much less likely than older people to be personally contacted about voting in the South Carolina primary. Only an estimated 17% of young people were contacted personally “about coming out to vote for your candidate,” while 31% of all Democratic primary voters were. An even higher proportion (34%) of voters aged 65+ reported being contacted. We’ve mentioned previously that, in general, contact correlates with turnout.