What about the black senior vote?

Getty Images

As millennial-boasting populist Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump: Clinton's VP pick 'VERY disrespectful' to Sanders, supporters Protesters prepare to flood Philadelphia for convention Walker jabs at Kasich for snubbing GOP convention MORE (I-Vt.) surges to front-runner in the crucial first primaries of Iowa and New Hampshire, many ask how he'll perform past that. For several months, some have raised doubts (this writer included) about Sanders's ability to break through a Clinton Machine "firewall" (that's the latest buzzword) in Nevada and South Carolina, due to heavy blocs of black and Latino voters. Recent signs suggest some scrambling toward a Clinton campaign write-off on the first two primaries, a "let Bernie have it" strategy that refocuses resources in much more diverse states.

ADVERTISEMENT
That calculus, now, finds itself mired in complications as African-American voters — once viewed as solidly, when not tepidly, supportive of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump: Clinton's VP pick 'VERY disrespectful' to Sanders, supporters Protesters prepare to flood Philadelphia for convention Walker jabs at Kasich for snubbing GOP convention MORE in 2016 (notwithstanding any 2008 grudges) — show some interest in Sanders. While there are reservations both in terms of cosmetics and grumpiness quotient, a growing number of black voters appear to appreciate Sanders's seemingly unapologetic stands on the economy in a time of increased election cycle focus on foreign policy.

As a result, in a late-December Public Policy Polling poll, Sanders had 42 percent favorability among African-Americans compared to 73 percent favorability for Clinton. Clinton's lead among black voters in South Carolina (where she really needs to stop Sanders) has also dropped steadily from 86 percent in October to 76 percent currently, according to YouGov. There, Sanders has seen a 15 percent rise in black favorability. He's also at 21 percent black favorability in the most recent Monmouth University poll.

That spirited conversation on whether Sanders actually pulls off an upset and routs Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary assumes millennial voters as the key factor. The 18-to-35 age bracket is widely viewed as the core of Sanders's rise in the polls since last summer, catapulting him in now spectacular and once unbelievable across-the-board increases.

So, naturally, in order to break through Clinton's firewall of black voters in places like South Carolina, conventional wisdom says all Sanders has to do is fire up the black youth vote.

But, in all the hype surrounding youth voters (including #BlackLivesMatter-focused black millennials), there's still a big question mark: Will they turn out?

That question above then prompts what could be, arguably, an even bigger question: What about black senior voters?

White senior voters certainly got all the props in a recent New York Times piece that picked up that, at the end of the day, it's older over-50 voters who consistently dominate at real polls in ways that younger, louder voters do not. Republican front-runner Donald Trump may be in danger of finding that out the hard way in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, should his deliberate and rather frugal lack of ground game fail to channel any millennial or Gen-X exuberance. Right now, older white voters over the age of 65 aren't feeling him.

In that type of analysis, black voters never get the courtesy of similar segmentations. There's just a general presumption of all black people thinking the same way, falling in the same income group, being the same age, living in the same hoods and supporting the same candidates.

The discussion on decisive black voters favors a focus on what black millennial voters will do, even when there's little evidence proving they're even close to being reliable the same way their elders are in primaries. When data center on so-called "senior voters" or "elder voters," holes begin showing in Sanders's current surge. While there's no specific "black senior” or African-Americans over-age-50 voter data readily available (just yet), a look at voter favorability and preference ratings by race and age show Clinton, if only slightly, outpacing Sanders with black voters and seniors.

Combining the two data-sets shows Sanders somewhat vulnerable among black senior voters (with many holding on to the Clinton brand since the early 1990s). That enthusiasm for President Bill ClintonBill ClintonWalker jabs at Kasich for snubbing GOP convention Clinton looks to expand electoral map Clinton unveils Kaine: He's everything Trump and Pence aren't MORE among older African-Americans may not translate completely into an advantage for Hillary Clinton (particularly with a few still bothered by Bill's initial arrogance and dismissive racial paternalism toward then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008). But it may provide decent enough protection when she reaches South Carolina and other states with large black Democratic primary bases.

In the latest YouGov/Economist polling, Clinton still shows 63 percent national favorability ratings among black voters (even though she'll need that at 90 percent or more if she reaches the general election phase). And despite some low favorability numbers among voters ages 45 and older, Clinton outperforms Sanders among both blacks and seniors on the question of whom they expect the Democratic nominee will be and who will win the general election. When asked, 58 percent of voters 65 years of age or older consider Clinton the nominee, compared to only 15 percent for Sanders. Black voters agree; 60 percent for Clinton and 18 percent for Sanders in the latest YouGov tally.

Even as Sanders has substantially closed the gap between himself and Clinton nationally with the millennial enthusiasm wind behind his sails, the jury is still out: Can millennials match their bark with turnout bite?

Looking at youth voting trends since 1964, it's not clear that they will. Typically, seniors (or voters 65 years and over) boast much higher voter turnout rates. In 2012, that voting block had the highest turnout rate, at 69.7 percent, compared to 18-to-24-year-olds at only 38 percent and voters 25-to-44 years of age at less than 50 percent.

And as Michael McDonald's United States Election Project shows, while senior voter participation dropped from nearly 70 percent in 2012 (steady from 2008 and 2004) to a little under 55 percent in the 2014 midterm elections, it was still much higher than voters ages 18-to-29. Millennial voter turnout was just 45 percent in 2012 (down from 51 percent in 2008) and under 20 percent in 2014.

The number of registered black millennial voters who voted in the 2012 election was still slightly higher than whites in the same group by several percentage points. But our present tendency toward outright dismissal of black senior and elder voters may find us rightfully re-evaluating initial judgements.

Ellison is a veteran political strategist and contributing editor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for "The Philadelphia Tribune," a frequent contributor to The Hill and the Weekly Washington Insider for WDAS-FM (Philadelphia). He is also Host of "The Ellison Report," a weekly public affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM (Baltimore). He can be reached @ellisonreport.

More in Presidential Campaign

Four surprises to watch for at the Democratic Convention

Read more »