Since entering the 2020 Democratic presidential contest in April, Joe Biden has remained the front-runner — despite gaffes, attacks from the president and fellow Democrats, Republicans’ charges of unethical behavior and questions about his health.
While other candidates’ poll ratings wax and wane, Biden’s have been remarkably stable.
Many observers have noted that Biden’s supporters are a diverse coalition, including older white and black voters. But using data from our new survey, we’ve found a new factor related to support for the former vice president — what social scientists call “white consciousness.”
What we already knew about Biden supporters
Biden’s support is high among older voters and those who believe deeply in the goodness of ordinary people. Black voters appear to associate him with Barack Obama’s presidency. Interestingly, white voters who measure high in racially resentful attitudes appear to see him as their representative as well. We’ve discovered something more, as we’ll explain below.
What is ‘white consciousness’?
White consciousness refers to a belief among whites that their status in American society is under threat and that they must use collective political action to overcome this threat.
Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina has documented that white consciousness has become more politically relevant over the past decade and has become associated with a variety of political opinions, including anti-immigration attitudes. This could be because of the spreading perception that whites make up a declining share of the U.S. population — and politicians’ willingness to stoke the resulting racial anxieties for political gain.
Most commonly, therefore, white consciousness is linked to support for President Trump. Our data shows that white consciousness also matters for Democratic Party politics.
How we did our research
Our survey, which features a non-probability and nationally representative sample, was conducted on the Web on Dec. 3 via the Lucid Theorem survey tool. We surveyed 2,094 white individuals, of whom 794, or roughly 38 percent, identified as Democrats.
To measure white consciousness, we use the four-item behavioral scale measure below. Alongside each question, in parentheses, we give the percentage of white Democrats whose answers showed high levels of white consciousness.
1. How important is it that whites work together to improve the position of their group? (very important = 19 percent; extremely important = 11 percent)
2. How important is it that whites work together to change laws that are unfair to whites? (very important = 18 percent; extremely important = 13 percent)
3. How likely is it that many whites are unable to find a job because employers are hiring minorities instead? (very likely = 12 percent; extremely likely = 8 percent)
4. How likely is it that many whites are not accepted to some colleges because these colleges are admitting minorities instead? (very likely = 11 percent; extremely likely = 9 percent)
Taking these questions together, we conclude that 20 percent of the Democrats in our sample harbor high overall levels of white consciousness — a reminder that while Democrats may be in the midst of what Matt Yglesias at Vox called the “Great Awokening,” there’s a wide gulf between the “woke” Democrats on Twitter and the average Democrat overall.
Biden’s the favorite among Democrats with high levels of white consciousness
If 1 out of every 5 Democrats harbor a high level of white in-group consciousness, what does that mean for the Democratic primaries? We use regression analysis to see whether white consciousness is related to potential voters’ assessments of primary candidates, including Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar.
We find that white consciousness is significantly associated with support for Biden. Even after accounting for other factors, Democratic voters with the highest levels of white consciousness rate Biden eight points more positively than those without white consciousness — that’s on average on a 101-point scale. When we include white independents who think of Trump unfavorably in the model, the estimated relationship becomes slightly larger — moving from low to high levels of white consciousness is associated with a nearly 10-point boost in support for Biden. White consciousness is not associated with support for any other candidate in the Democratic field included in our survey.
Why is Biden uniquely appealing to Democrats who harbor high levels of white consciousness? Perhaps it’s because of his long-standing political involvement, dating to the 1960s. As the Democratic Party shifts leftward on immigration and race, Biden may remind Democratic voters of a time when other issues dominated the party’s brand.
Or it may be because of Biden’s campaign behavior. As has been widely noted, Biden is a moderate, not a progressive firebrand. His campaign emphasizes this, playing to his most likely voters. For instance, the Biden campaign spends the bulk of its digital advertising funds targeting older voters; those efforts are unlikely to feature social-justice themes related to race and immigration.
Biden straddles an interesting divide in the Democratic Party. He appeals strongly to black voters — and to whites who don’t identify with the Black Lives Matter branch of the party. This bodes well for his chances of remaining a front-runner. And if he is the eventual nominee, it may well boost his chances against the Republican candidate who explicitly appeals to voters high in white consciousness: President Trump.
B. Kal Munis (@KalMunis) is a PhD candidate in the politics department at the University of Virginia.
Richard Burke is a PhD student in the politics department at the University of Virginia.
Nicole Huffman is an undergraduate researcher in the politics and psychology departments at the University of Virginia.
Connor Munis is an undergraduate researcher in the political science department at the University of Montana.
Read more of TMC’s analysis about the 2020 presidential election: