A geographic divide emerged. In the initial contests in his native South, Carter scored overwhelming statewide victories that were aided by black voters. In Alabama, for instance, he won heavily black areas by 3-to-1, according to estimates at the time — proof, one black Carter supporter declared, that "Edward Kennedy is not John Kennedy at all." (“State blacks repeat support for Carter,” Danny Lewis, The Montgomery Advertiser, March 12, 1980.) Campaigning for his uncle, a frustrated Robert Kennedy Jr. asked, "God, how the hell does a black go out and vote for Jimmy Carter after what he's done to them?” (“On the stump for Uncle Teddy,” Jeff Jarvis, San Francisco Examiner, May 7, 1980.)
Kennedy, though, was bypassing the South and banking on a strategy of winning big industrial states. In New York, where he notched his first significant victory, Kennedy bested Carter by 6 percentage points with black voters. In Pennsylvania, where his statewide margin was wider, he routed Carter by nearly 2-to-1 with black voters, according to NBC News’ black voter data analysis. A black union leader working for Kennedy offered an explanation: "The people want relief from inflation."
The pattern largely held throughout the primaries. Black voters delivered for Kennedy in the North, his home region, but stayed with Carter in the South, where the president enjoyed favorite son status. Polling showed that black voters were frustrated with the president when it came to the economy but they also, barely a decade after Chappaquiddick, had reservations about Kennedy's personal character.
More broadly, though, the 1980 Democratic race convinced much of the black political community that it was being ignored, a sentiment that reached critical mass when both Carter and Kennedy — and every Republican candidate — skipped the late-February National Conference on a Black Agenda for the '80s, which attracted 1,500 black leaders and activists from around the country.
Surrogates for the candidates did appear, but received receptions ranging from lukewarm to hostile. Andrew Young, still a Carter loyalist, was jeered as he tried to make the president's case. "If you boo, who the hell are you?" Young asked to the crowd. "I'm going for Jimmy Carter. You can make up your own damn minds!"