Will the Obama Coalition Turn Out in 2018? Virginia Might Offer Some Clues

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Minority turnout was down in 2016, and it’s usually not high in non-presidential years anyway. It may not rebound in 2018 without a real effort from Democrats. Photo: Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

For all the discussion about Donald Trump’s success among “Rust Belt” white working-class voters in 2016, another big factor in his upset win was unexpectedly low turnout among “Obama Coalition” voters (usually defined as young and minority voters), especially African-Americans. Despite Trump’s constant deployment of sub-rosa and not-so sub-rosa appeals to white racial resentments, according to census data, African-American turnout dropped from 66.6 percent in 2012 to 59.6 percent in 2016, the largest presidential cycle-to-cycle turnout slump for black voters in recorded history. Latino turnout was stable, a major disappointment to Democrats who thought Trump’s constant immigrant-baiting might create a large backlash. Millennial turnout was up, but not massively.

Some reasons for the African-American turnout drop-off in 2016 are reasonably obvious: It was the first presidential election since 2004 (when black turnout was very similar to 2016 levels) when the first African-American president was not on the ballot. And as Ari Berman has demonstrated, GOP-engineered voter suppression may have played an important role in reducing African-American turnout in some key states, notably Wisconsin.

Postmortems aside, the collapse of the Obama Coalition should cast a long shadow over Democratic hopes of a 2018 wave election. That’s because these voters traditionally have not participated proportionately in non-presidential elections. Unless the pattern changes — and after 2016 we now know that Donald Trump’s presence as leader of the GOP won’t likely change it without some additional encouragement — then Democrats looking to win back the House in 2018 may need a level of success with white voters beyond anything they’ve accomplished lately. In the last Democratic midterm wave election, in 2006, Democrats won 47 percent of the white vote. Barring something really unimaginable, that is not going to happen in 2018 (Republicans have now won at or near 60 percent of the white vote in four consecutive presidential and midterm elections).

In 2014, Democrats were worried enough about the “midterm falloff” problem in their electoral base that the Democratic National Committee created and funded an initiative — known as the Bannock Street Project —to address it. Utilizing the digital voter-targeting and outreach methodologies pioneered in the 2012 Obama campaign, the $60 million project targeted pro-Democratic demographic groups in ten states. All ten of those states had Senate elections in 2014; Republicans won nine of them — a net gain of six Senate seats in this relatively small slice of the country.

There is some empirical evidence the Bannock Street Project actually did boost base turnout, making a 2014 debacle less severe than it otherwise might have been, but it’s tough to get around the bottom-line failure. And given the uninspiring numbers from 2016, Democrats face 2018 with this very large problem still unsolved.

That is one reason to look closely at what is happening in the competitive off-year gubernatorial election in Virginia, a state with a large African-American population and a growing Latino presence as well. Despite a pro-Democratic trend in presidential elections (Virginia has now gone Democratic in three consecutive presidential years, after going Republican ten straight times dating back to 1964), the party has suffered underwhelming election finishes in the last two non-presidential years: in 2013, Terry McAuliffe undershot the polls in dispatching ultraconservative Republican Ken Cuccinelli; and in 2014, Republican Ed Gillespie nearly upset Senator Mark Warner. So the possibility of midterm falloff among minority voters is and should be a big concern.

At least one observer, civil-rights activist Steve Phillips, is warning that Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam and his campaign are ignoring African-American voters in the pursuit of white swing voters to an extent that may doom his candidacy:

Northam has spent over $17 million as of October 1, 2017…. [T]he Northam campaign’s biggest line item—nearly $9 million—consists of funds given to an advertising firm led by an all-white board to run television ads. These campaign ads attack the Republican nominee for his ties to the oil company Enron. What is the strategic rationale of such an advertising campaign? Clearly, those ads are not supposed to motivate African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color to take time from their busy lives to come out and support the Democratic ticket. 

Phillips also deplores the scant attention and support pro-Democratic groups in Virginia have given to Northam’s African-American running mate, Justin Fairfax.

There are actually some signs in Virginia of Democratic concern for motivating base voters instead of simply competing for swing voters, including a high-profile appearance by President Obama. Swing-voter-focused ads have also been supplemented by more base-oriented efforts, including a flier that directly links Republican candidate Ed Gillespie to Donald Trump and to the infamous neo-Confederate protesters in Charlottesville. And it’s also possible Gillespie’s own racially tinged ads that demagogue about the MS-13 criminal gang or the restoration of felons’ rights will backfire (in one famous case, in Georgia in 1998, an over-the-top white racial appeal orchestrated by GOP operative Ralph Reed boosted African-American turnout in a midterm election significantly and produced a surprise Democratic statewide sweep).

It is not clear, moreover, that non-presidential election falloff among African-Americans in Virginia is as severe a problem as it is in some states. According to exit polls, the African-American percentage of the Virginia electorate was virtually the same (ranging from 20 percent to 21 percent) in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2016. The one exception, though, shows the potentially calamitous results of poor minority turnout: In 2009 African-Americans represented just 16 percent of the Virginia electorate, and Democrat Creigh Deeds lost decisively.

So minority turnout in Virginia (and for that matter, in the less competitive contest in New Jersey) is worth watching on November 7. Heading into 2018, Democrats would be well advised to conduct a full public discussion of the Bannock Street Project and other investments in “base” turnout, while making voter mobilization just as important a factor as swing voter persuasion in all the party’s investments. The potential Democratic vote in midterms probably isn’t going to show up at the polls just because the Donkey Party points at Donald Trump and says Boo!

Will the Obama Coalition Will Turn Out in 2018?