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Nina Turner Showed That a Left Candidate Can Win Black Workers

Nina Turner’s primary loss this week stings, but a close look at the numbers makes clear her loss wasn’t the result of a bold left-wing candidate being unable to win over black workers. On the contrary: in black working-class districts, Turner performed well.

Congressional candidate Nina Turner speaks during a Get Out the Vote rally on July 31 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images)

In so many ways, this week’s special Democratic primary in Ohio felt like a bittersweet recurrence of the Bernie Sanders campaigns. The left candidate, Nina Turner, gained national prominence as Bernie’s most compelling surrogate; in the closing weeks of the race, former Sanders allies from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Cornel West gathered in Cleveland to boost her campaign.

Turner’s opponent, Shontel Brown, won endorsements from Hillary Clinton, South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn, and the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. In the last month, centrist groups like Third Way and Democratic Majority for Israel spent millions on a TV air war against Turner, mostly focusing on her criticism of Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders.

The battle lines were familiar. When the results came in Tuesday night, the outcome was familiar, too, with Brown winning by six points. The Democratic establishment, the donor class, and their media acolytes could take another victory lap. The post-election takes were familiar, too: “Nina Turner’s loss in Ohio means Biden doesn’t need to keep caving to the left,” declared James Hohmann in the Washington Post, following a script in continual use since Hillary beat Bernie on Super Tuesday 2016.

Turner’s loss was certainly a defeat for the post-Sanders progressive movement. But a closer look at the results suggests the emergence of a new narrative, too, with rather different implications. While Sanders famously failed to gain crucial support from black working-class voters — a demographic that other progressives have struggled to win, too — Turner held her own. Even in defeat, she may well have won more black working-class votes than Cori Bush did in her victorious campaign in Missouri last summer.

A comparison between the Turner and Bush campaigns may be instructive here. Both candidates performed best with the core constituent of the larger Sanders coalition: younger voters in large cities. Turner cleaned up in the western half of Cleveland; Bush ran the table in southern St Louis. To call all of these areas “gentrifying neighborhoods” would be to oversimplify, but they do fit a certain profile: compared to the whole of Cleveland and St Louis, they are better-educated, younger, and more racially diverse (though usually majority-white).

But in poor and working-class black precincts, there is a gap between the two candidates. In East Cleveland — whose population is 90 percent black, with a median income of just above $20,000 a year — Turner lost to Brown by less than three points. In Cleveland’s Ward 9, with a similar demographic profile, Turner won by four.

On the whole, Turner won five of Cleveland’s nine black-majority wards and lost four (all of them narrowly, by less than two points). She won the city of Cleveland overall, as well as the black-majority city of Akron.

This is a major gain from the Sanders 2020 campaign, which lost all of these areas by fifty points or more. But it’s also a better performance than Cori Bush managed in demographically similar parts of her district: in the black, lower-income wards of North St Louis, Bush generally lost by between fifteen and twenty-five points. Even in Ferguson, Missouri, itself — the base for her years of activism — she lost by twelve points.

Of course, there are many differences between the two races. St Louis is not Cleveland. Bush’s opponent, William Lacy Clay, was a twenty-year incumbent, which arguably made her task more difficult. On the other hand, Lacy Clay and his establishment backers spent just a fraction of the money that poured in to help Shontel Brown defeat Turner.

If Turner outperformed Bush among black working-class voters, why did she lose while Bush won? In Ohio-11, the key difference came in the more affluent suburbs. In wealthy communities like Pepper Pike — 84 percent white, with a median income of $190,000 a year — Brown beat Turner by over fifty points. There are simply far fewer of these kinds of communities in Cori Bush’s Missouri district.

Yes, Brown also did well in black working-class suburbs near her home base of Warrensville Heights, which she has represented as a city and county council member for over a decade. But by far the heaviest blow against Turner came in the richer burbs. In just six suburban towns — Pepper Pike, Beachwood, Orange, Broadview Heights, University Heights, and Shaker Heights — Brown netted 4,390 votes over Turner, more than her total margin of victory.

This is just one special election. The progressive left as a whole still has work to do to win over working-class black voters.

But for pessimistic observers tempted to over-read the results — either as an ideological defeat for the Left, or a repudiation of Turner’s confrontational style — the actual results in Northeastern Ohio offer a measure of hope.

Nina Turner, after all, referred to the sitting Democratic president as “half a bowl of shit,” and the establishment spent millions making sure every Democratic primary voter in her district knew about it. She still won Cleveland, Akron, and — probably — a larger share of black working-class voters than most victorious progressives. Her defeat is a setback for the Left, but it was nothing like a defeat for class politics.