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States With Struggling Economies Aren't Feeling The Bern

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 15/03/2016 Shane Ferro
ATHENA IMAGE © Bloomberg via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

Given Sen. Bernie Sanders' message in this Democratic primary -- "The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time," his campaign website states -- you might assume that he's doing well in places where the economy is faring poorly. 

An analysis by The Huffington Post using state unemployment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the opposite is actually happening.

In states with high unemployment that have held primaries and caucuses this year, Sanders has received a very low percentage of the vote. In states with below-average unemployment, the Vermont senator has done well.

Here's how Democratic voting breaks down in the earlier states. Anything to the right of the center on this chart is a win for Hillary Clinton. The farther right, the larger percentage of the vote she won. Anything to the left is a Sanders win. The higher unemployment is, the better Clinton did.

The reason for this counterintuitive result may be race. 

While the overall unemployment rate is 4.9 percent, the unemployment rate for blacks in this country is 8.8 percent. So it's not surprising that states with high unemployment typically have higher numbers of minorities. And minority voters, particularly African-American voters, overwhelmingly support Clinton.  

Despite the improving national economy, the black unemployment rate still remains above 10 percent in seven states -- Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Three of those states have voted so far. Clinton won Alabama and Louisiana in landslides.

She narrowly lost Michigan to Sanders. Though it has the second-highest black unemployment rate in the country at 12.4 percent, Michigan also has fewer African-Americans as a proportion of its population than most states in the South.

"The data clearly tells a story that is consistent with what we've seen with Clinton having a higher percentage of black support than Sanders," said Valerie Wilson, director of the liberal Economic Policy Institute's program on race, ethnicity and the economy. "Whether that support is necessarily driven by economics or unemployment, it's not clear," she said.

Indeed, the chart below shows that among the early voting states, Clinton has generally done better in states with higher percentages of minority voters. Conversely, in states with lower percentages of minority voters, Sanders tended to win bigger. 

A key point to note is that this pattern seems to be almost entirely about the black vote. When HuffPost isolated specific minority groups, we found barely any correlation between the percentage of Hispanic voters and either candidate's margin of victory (and there wasn't a high enough percentage of Asians in the populations of any of these states to give us good data). Thus, the relationship between a high number of minority voters and a Clinton win is based almost entirely on the choices of African-Americans. 

This underlines something we already knew: The black vote is essential to Clinton's campaign.

The question it raises is why Sanders' economic message isn't resonating with those who might benefit from his progressive policies most.

Natalie Jackson contributed to this report.

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