During a visit to the Grace Lutheran Church in Kenosha, Wis., this month, Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president Joe Biden told a group of activists, “I’m going to go down fighting for racial equality, equity across the board.”

That forceful appeal to African Americans is unusual for presidential candidates. Conventional wisdom holds that explicitly reaching out to Blacks alienates White voters. As recently as 2016, several academics and political pundits argued that Hillary Clinton’s focus on people of color cost her working-class White voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, leading to her surprising defeat. Many believed that the Democratic Party should abandon identity politics if it hoped to regain the White House.

But American attitudes have changed dramatically over the past four years, from the resurgence of Black Lives Matter to exacerbated political polarization. In my new book, The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals,” I argue that because of increased political polarization and demographic changes, politicians can actually boost their chances of winning by making progressive racial appeals. Here’s why.

How I did this research

To find out how trends in American politics changed voters’ responses to racial outreach, I examined more than 30 years of political attitudes from numerous data sources, including the American National Election Studies (ANES), the General Social Survey, the Pew Research Center, an online survey experiment and Google Trends.

To find out whether and how voters’ responses to racially liberal politicians has changed over time, I did a two-part analysis. First, to understand voters’ perceptions of racial ideology, I analyzed answers to this ANES question:

Some people feel that the government in Washington should make every effort to improve the social and economic position of blacks. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 7. Others feel that the government should not make any special effort to help blacks because they should help themselves. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 1 ….
Where would you place [current Democratic presidential candidate] on this scale?

Next, I explored how these perceptions of a candidate’s racial ideology influenced whether a person said they voted in the election and who they said they voted for. I did this for all Democratic presidential candidates between 1980 and 2016, estimating separately for Black, Latino, White Democratic, White independent and White Republican respondents.

In 2016, voters stopped recoiling from a racially liberal Democratic candidate

In most years, if voters thought a Democratic candidate was racially liberal, that either didn’t affect them or they become less likely to vote for or otherwise support that candidate. For example, in 2012, all voters — regardless of race or party — who viewed Barack Obama as racially liberal were much less likely to vote for him. In 1996, Latinos and White independents and Republicans who viewed Bill Clinton as racially liberal were similarly less likely to support him. In other cases in which the Democratic nominee was seen as racially progressive, Democratic turnout dropped. For instance, in 1980, Blacks who saw Jimmy Carter as racially liberal were less likely to say that they voted in that election.

But things began to shift in 2016. In that year, White Democrats and Blacks of any party who rated Hillary Clinton as racially liberal — “7” on the scale above — were 14 percent more likely to report voting than White Democrats and Blacks who rated her as racially conservative. In other words, seeing her as racially liberal motivated them to go to the polls. Blacks who rated Clinton a “7” also were 30 percent more likely to vote for her in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries than those who rated her a “1,” or very racially conservative.

However, I found no evidence that seeing Clinton as racially liberal influenced White, Black or Latinx voters to vote either for or against her in the general election. Presumably, that’s because in an increasingly polarized country, both Democrats and Republicans were prepared to vote for their party’s candidate no matter what.

Nor did I find evidence that either White Republicans or political independents reacted against Hillary Clinton for appearing racially progressive. Rather, White working-class voters who already had high levels of racial resentment appear to have been motivated by Trump’s explicit racial appeals in 2016 — voting for Trump rather than voting against Clinton.

Overall, these results suggest that Democratic candidates who appear more racially liberal will mobilize supportive voters without inviting backlash.

What this means for Joe Biden in 2020

These trends have only strengthened since 2016. My book shows that Black and Latinx voters have had a surge in racial/ethnic group consciousness, given the increase in hate crimes over the past five years; Republican politicians’ increasingly hostile rhetoric; and appeals from energized racial justice movements. As a result, I find they have increasingly responded to racial outreach in recent years.

Meanwhile, Whites who’ve remained with the Democratic Party have become more racially liberal, pushed by both the Black Lives Matter movement and the Democratic Party’s growing commitment to racial equity. White Democrats have become much more energized on race and more committed to supporting politicians who take progressive stances.

The combination of these factors, along with changes to U.S. demography, has given politicians incentives to take racial issues more seriously.

All that means that Biden is running in a very different political context than Obama faced in 2008 and 2012. While Obama faced strong pressures to distance himself from racial issues, Biden may actually need to increase his explicit racial outreach to win. A Biden victory depends on maximizing turnout among people of color and left-leaning Whites in critical swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and North Carolina.

To get these voters to cast ballots, Biden must show he’s racially liberal. His recent statements in Kenosha and his choice of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) as running mate — she has been promising that a Biden-Harris White House will address racial inequality — is probably a good start.

Christopher Stout (@christophestout) is an associate professor in political science at Oregon State University, and author of “The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals” (University of Virginia Press, 2020).