Black Turnout Is Down in Early Voting. Does That Mean the Trumpocalypse Is Nigh?

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Photo: Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images

To win on November 8, Donald Trump needs upscale Republicans to come home, while black Democrats stay at home — at least in higher numbers than they did in 2008 and 2012.

The past week has been kind to Trump on both of these fronts. As Election Day draws near — and the FBI draws the spotlight away from the mogul’s alleged sex crimes — skeptical conservatives are ending their flirtation with Gary Johnson and quietly coming aboard the Trump train.

If more and more college-educated Republicans decide they’d rather elect the madman than risk a tax hike, Democrats could get real nervous, real fast. Right now Hillary Clinton’s polling advantage in North Carolina is driven by support from diploma-bearing whites, whose aversion for Trump has compensated for a drop-off in African-American enthusiasm.

Concerns about the latter have been amplified by trends in early voting, where a combination of GOP suppression efforts and an apparent lack of excitement for Clinton’s candidacy has produced a sharp drop-off in black turnout. Per the New York Times:

In North Carolina, where a federal appeals court accused Republicans of an “almost surgical” assault on black turnout and Republican-run election boards curtailed early-voting sites, black turnout is down 16 percent. White turnout, however, is up 15 percent.

Democrats are planning an aggressive final push, including a visit by President Obama to the state on Wednesday. But in Florida, which extended early voting after long lines left some voters waiting for hours in 2012, African-Americans’ share of the electorate that has gone to the polls in person so far has decreased, to 15 percent today from 25 percent four years ago.

The Democrats’ problem extends to Ohio, where voter participation in heavily African-American areas near Cleveland and Columbus is also down, amid cutbacks to early voting.

What makes this trend somewhat alarming is that Clinton has lost ground with a less-appreciated segment of the Obama coalition — non-college-educated whites in the upper Midwest.

In 2012, 34 percent of Obama’s votes came from white voters without a college degree, according to the estimates of the Upshot’s Nate Cohn. Clinton’s relative weakness — and/or Trump’s relative strength — with that demographic has kept Ohio and Iowa light red, even as Trump has underperformed compared to Mitt Romney nationally.

So far, Clinton has more than compensated for these lost votes with gains among college-educated whites — for much of the race, she’s been on pace to win the demographic, which has voted overwhelmingly Republican for decades.

But if right-leaning voters within this group allow their all-American propensity for short-term memory loss to smooth out Donald Trump’s edges, Clinton could ostensibly lose this critical counterweight.

Add that to a drop-off in black turnout, a spike in participation among unreliable downscale whites, and one more round of bad Clinton email headlines, and you’ve got yourself the four horsemen of the Trumpocalypse.

But before liberals click out of this article to type “how to get Xanax prescription” into Google, there are a lot of reasons to doubt a perfect storm is coming.

First, the early-voting news isn’t all bad for Clinton. Early returns from Florida suggest a surge in Latino turnout that could compensate for a drop-off among African-Americans. Second, the Democratic nominee still has a solid advantage in the polls, on the ground, and over the airwaves.

And finally, it’s far from clear that publicly available early-voting data is predictive of overall turnout. In fact, trying to predict Election Day outcomes from early-voting totals led some forecasters to wild misjudgments in past cycles, as Sean Trende notes for RealClearPolitics:

In 2010, analysts saw huge Democratic advantages in turnout in places such as Ohio and Iowa and thought that perhaps there was no enthusiasm gap in the election. In 2014, it was widely assumed that early vote totals were good news for Democrats in states including North Carolina and Iowa; Thom Tillis ended up winning in North Carolina on the back of strong Election Day turnout, while the 2014 Iowa Senate race was decidedly not close (as early vote analysts had suggested); Joni Ernst won by almost 10 points.

There are many reasons why early-voting numbers can fail as an indicator. For one, an increase in early turnout may reflect a spike in enthusiasm for a party’s candidate among the broader electorate — or it may merely reflect a shift in that party’s campaign strategy toward an emphasis on early voting. And then, early-vote totals give no indication of how independents are voting — extrapolations are drawn from turnout among registered partisans. A spike in independent early voting could signal a jump in casual voters heading to the polls to reject Trump, or it could mean that the GOP’s populist nominee finally got his hand on those “missing white votes.”

Since African-American voters make up such an overwhelming portion of the Democratic base, their turnout in early voting may be more telling than that of other demographics. But as Trende argues, it still tells us nothing certain:

If African-American participation rates revert to their historic mean of trailing their white counterparts by six points, a lot of the polls are going to be off, including in places like Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. But all of this is meaningless if African-American voters were uniquely motivated to vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and so voted early in those years, but still opt to vote on Election Day of 2016 despite lower enthusiasm.

All of which is to say: Early voting is a less reliable indicator than polling averages. And polling averages show Clinton in solid shape.

Still, the way the Trump-Clinton race is shaking out may signal a long-term challenge for Democrats. Whether African-American turnout reverts all the way back to its historic mean this year — with a Republican as odious as Trump on the other side of the ballot — it would be strange if black voters didn’t become significantly less reliable for Team Blue than they were in 2008 and 2012, when the party’s standard-bearer was the audaciously charismatic first black president.

And with downscale whites turning rightward, in an apparent backlash to mass Latino immigration, it’s easy to imagine the GOP assembling a majority coalition behind a candidate capable of dog-whistling to the populist base while maintaining an image of civility for conservative suburbanites (which is to say, a candidate capable of not boasting about grabbing married women’s genitalia on video tape).