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.

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

State Non-college white College white Black Hispanic Asian/ Other Pledged Delegates
Connecticut 31% 42% 12% 11% 4% 60
Florida 30 22 24 20 4 219
Illinois 28 32 23 11 5 155
Nevada 34 21 15 20 9 36
New Jersey 24 32 21 15 8 126
New York 22 33 22 17 7 274
Texas 16 23 27 29 5 228
TOTAL 1,098

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 (125) 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

State Non-college white College white Black Hispanic Asian/ Other Pledged delegates
Arkansas 35% 24% 36% 3% 2% 31
Delaware 32 26 33 4 4 21
Indiana 44 31 18 5 3 82
Kansas 36 44 11 7 3 39
Kentucky 44 28 24 2 2 54
Michigan 42 27 25 3 3 125
Missouri 37 35 24 3 2 68
N. Carolina 22 30 41 4 4 110
Ohio 40 31 23 3 2 136
Oklahoma 33 33 20 5 9 37
Pennsylvania 36 34 19 6 4 186
Tennessee 31 24 41 2 2 64
Virginia 20 34 32 6 8 99
W. Virginia 52 34 11 1 2 28
TOTAL 1,080

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

State Non-college white College white Black Hispanic Asian/ Other Pledged delegates
Arizona 32% 30% 6% 24% 7% 67
California 22 28 8 26 16 415
Colorado 32 43 6 15 4 67
New Mexico 19 27 3 43 8 34
Rhode Island 38 40 7 11 4 26
Utah 46 37 2 11 4 29
TOTAL 638

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

State Non-college white College white Black Hispanic Asian/ Other Pledged delegates
Alaska 34% 36% 5% 7% 19% 15
Idaho 49 41 1 7 3 20
Maine 55 40 1 1 2 24
Massachusetts 33 47 8 7 5 91
Minnesota 41 43 8 2 5 75
Montana 49 40 1 3 7 19
Nebraska 44 40 9 5 2 29
N. Dakota 51 38 4 2 5 14
Oregon 41 43 2 8 7 61
S. Dakota 49 40 2 2 8 16
Vermont 50 45 1 2 3 16
Washington 41 40 4 6 10 89
Wisconsin 47 37 9 4 3 84
Wyoming 49 38 2 8 3 14
TOTAL 567

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

State Non-college white College white Black Hispanic Asian/ Other Pledged delegates
Alabama 13% 13% 71% 1% 1% 52
D.C. 4 38 47 6 5 20
Georgia 14 19 59 4 4 105
Louisiana 13 16 66 3 2 54
Maryland 15 27 45 5 7 96
Mississippi 8 7 84 1 0 36
S. Carolina 19 20 57 2 2 54
TOTAL 417

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.