Why Black Voters in Milwaukee Weren’t Enthused by Hillary Clinton

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Voters go to the polls in Milwaukee to cast their votes earlier this month.Photo: Darren Hauck/Getty Images

We’re entering our second week of presidential election postmortems, and there’s an ongoing argument over the extent to which Hillary Clinton’s campaign was hampered by its own weaknesses, as opposed to forces beyond its control. What is clear, from the numbers, is that Clinton did not get the turnout she and her campaign were expecting from key Democratic voting blocs like Latinos and African-Americans.

On that particular issue, a very useful data point was published yesterday in the form of a Times dispatch from a poor part of Milwaukee where the numbers suggest black voters were extremely unenthusiastic about the prospect of voting for Clinton. It’s useful, in part, because it punctures several myths about how black voters were “supposed to” respond to Clinton’s campaign, according to journalists and politicos in major-media bubbles like New York and Washington.

As Sabrina Tavernise explains, turnout in Wisconsin, a high-turnout state relative to the rest of the nation, was the lowest it had been in 16 years. And the decline was concentrated in poor areas. “Milwaukee’s lowest-income neighborhoods offer one explanation for the turnout figures,” she writes. “Of the city’s 15 council districts, the decline in turnout from 2012 to 2016 in the five poorest was consistently much greater than the drop seen in more prosperous areas — accounting for half of the overall decline in turnout citywide.”

The biggest drop occurred in District 15, “a stretch of fading wooden homes, sandwich shops and fast-food restaurants that is 84 percent black,” so Tavernise spoke with voters there to try to figure out what happened. For the most part, the residents there who spoke with Tavernise simply saw no affirmative reason to vote for Hillary. Some saw her as corrupt; others noted that they had not seen their economic situation improved during the Obama years.

“Ain’t none of this been working,” said a barber who had trouble finding health care, is now shelling out $300 a month for a plan he can’t afford, and who didn’t vote.

Many residents of the neighborhood also openly said they admired Trump, and were apparently unaware of his bankruptcies, frequent ripoffs of contractors, and other well-reported facts that might detract from that image. “From a business perspective, I loved him,” said a security guard who didn’t vote, but said Trump would have gotten his vote if he had. One interviewee, who voted for Trump to protest Clinton, said of what he viewed as Trump’s racism, “It’s better than smiling to my face but going behind closed doors and voting against our kids” — a point another resident echoed: “He was real, unlike a lot of liberal Democrats who are just as racist,” she said.

It’s important, in parsing all these different election postmortems, not to lose sight of the broader picture, not to overinterpret from a collection of anecdotes, which is what Tavernise’s article is. Clinton did win the popular vote by a significant margin despite a barrage of fake, WikiLeaks-sourced news, James Comey’s harmful last-minute announcement, and other issues. Plus, the reduction in black turnout wasn’t entirely voluntary: States like Wisconsin and North Carolina enacted voter-registration laws designed, all but explicitly, to make it harder for people of color to vote.

But still, a few points stand out from this story, partly because they seem to be relevant not only in Milwaukee, but also on the various other parts of the map that doomed Clinton as well.

The African-American Milwaukee voters were less outraged by Trump’s bigotry and misogyny than many optimistic Democrats expected them to be. Over and over, Democrats and journalists stated and wrote confidently that Trump’s outrageous statements about minority groups would fire up and turn out the Democratic base, making Trump’s uphill battle even steeper. It didn’t happen — exit polls suggest Clinton underperformed among African-Americans and Latinos. One interpretation is that members of these groups were, overall, less offended than bubble-denizens assumed they would be, or at least less mobilized by that offense. In the case of the Milwaukee voters Tavernise interviewed (an admittedly nonscientific sample), Trump’s bigoted remarks just weren’t near the top of their list of concerns. One likely possibility is that African-Americans’ views on Trump were mediated by class and education. Just a month ago, the Times ran an article quoting a handful of the many black voters who were disturbed by Trump’s racial rhetoric. But it appeared to be a somewhat different crowd than the folks interviewed by Tavernise: Among the anti-Trump interviewees were a graduate student, another graduate student, a finance professional, and the head of a gay-rights group. It may be that high-information, politically engaged minority voters — those who are likely to have higher incomes and be better educated — found the choice obvious, but lower-information ones didn’t. It’s not like white people don’t have the same pattern.

This is reminiscent of how many Democrats approached the question of gender this cycle: The common thinking was that there was no way all that many women could possibly vote for someone with as extensive and explicit a record of misogyny as Trump, and that this would corrode the GOP’s usual base of white support. Again, the bubbles produced a spate of news stories reinforcing this belief: “Trump Is Losing Educated GOP Women—and Splitting Up Families Along the Way,” went the Politico headline. That was part of the basis for Chuck Schumer’s now infamous prediction that “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia.” But nope: White women broke quite solidly for Trump. Clinton got walloped by something like a 2-to-1 margin among white women without a college degree, according to one set of exit polls cited by Claire Malone of FiveThirtyEight, and only won those with college degrees — those respectable suburban types — by 6 points. The outrage was not as potent a force outside the bubbles as it was within them.

For the African-American Milwaukee voters, the “improving” economy was invisible. It shouldn’t surprise liberals, who have rightly been complaining about America’s runaway inequality for a long time, that the purported economic gains of the last few years — unemployment is at 4.9 percent — didn’t trickle all that far down. Even among those who do have jobs, economic insecurity abounds. Inequality isn’t getting better; wages have been stagnant for decades. (And there’s good reason to apply several grains of salt to unemployment statistics anyway, since the numbers don’t capture people who have effectively given up and stopped looking for work.) So it also shouldn’t be surprising that a group of low-income African-Americans didn’t see a compelling reason to vote for another Democrat.

Again, there’s a cross-racial comparison here: Dems’ overall confidence rested, in part, on the idea that things were looking up for white voters, too, in places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and that “the models suggest” — there are three dangerous words — that incumbent-party candidates benefit during economic upswings. But a huge chunk of white America, like a huge chunk of black America, is in the midst of a decades-long slow-burn crisis in which many people lack affordable access to housing, education, and health care, in which they can barely stay afloat, and in which — in the case of white people, at least — there has been a recent, terrifying increase in mortality rates. Things haven’t felt like they were getting better lately.

You can’t count on voters to understand complex policy stuff. Quick, what were Hillary Clinton’s signature policy proposals? If you don’t know, you’re not alone — neither, apparently, did the black Milwaukee voters Tavernise spoke with, who were supposed to be part of her backbone of support. Many of them just saw her and Trump as two equally corrupt Establishment figures in part, it’s safe to say, because Clinton and her campaign didn’t tell enough clear, compelling stories about how her policies would improve their lives. (The fact that she didn’t campaign in Wisconsin probably didn’t help.)

Some of Clinton’s critics on the left have taken this criticism too far, acting as though she didn’t have policies and didn’t have any interest in, for example, reducing inequality. That isn’t fair — she was a policy-oriented presidential candidate with an active team of wonks working busily outside the spotlight. But maybe they were a bit too outside the spotlight. Whereas Trump’s proposals were as bombastic and offensive as they were ridiculous — deport “illegals,” build a wall, fix trade, stop getting us ripped off — they did speak to economically insecure (and frequently racially aggrieved) white GOP voters. What were Clinton’s equivalent policies? Given how little the average voter knows about policy, is it any wonder that while Trump’s intended audiences in key states were energized by his big, hollow talk, Clinton’s were less than awestruck?