Among the many factors that contributed to Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat in 2016, one pretty much everyone agrees upon (though not necessarily about its relative significance) is a falloff in African-American turnout relative to 2012. The numbers are clear, as Politico reported in 2017:
The Census’ Current Population Survey, released Wednesday, shows 65 percent of white citizens cast ballots in last year’s presidential election, up from 64 percent four years earlier.
But the turnout rate among African-American citizens tumbled sharply, the survey shows. Only 59 percent of black citizens voted in 2016, down from 66 percent in 2012 and 65 percent in 2008.
Those national numbers may underestimate the size and impact of lower black turnout in individual battleground states, as Osita Nwanevu observed:
Crucially, the drop in black turnout was even sharper in states where the margin of victory was less than 10 points than it was nationally — in those battleground states, black turnout dropped 5.3 points. In two critical states that swung to Trump — Michigan and Wisconsin — black turnout dropped by just more than 12 points. Declines were less dramatic but significant in other swing states Trump carried: Ohio (down 7.5 points), Florida (4.2), and Pennsylvania (2.1). White turnout declined modestly in each of those swing states but Florida and Pennsylvania, where it increased by 3.5 points and 5.2 points respectively. Clinton lost each of those swing states but Ohio by a margin of less than 2 points.
Conversely, a return to higher black turnout could be a key element in toppling Trump next year. In a major study from the Center for American Progress, Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin project that natural demographic trends in the last four years plus a return to 2012 levels of African-American voting would flip four states — Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — and give Democrats a 294-244 majority in the Electoral College. And even if black voting turnout doesn’t quite hit those levels, in many states even marginal changes in turnout and Democratic vote-share could make the difference in a close race.
Will black turnout rebound to 2012 automatically after nearly three years of the most openly racist president since Woodrow Wilson? That’s unclear. In the 2018 midterms African-American turnout rose 10.8 percent as compared to the last midterm in 2014, as compared to an 11.7 boost in white turnout. And there’s also some evidence (though it’s at best mixed) that Trump is marginally more popular with black voters now than he was in 2016, though he remains overwhelmingly unpopular.
The most obvious factor to which to attribute the 2012-2016 falloff in African-American turnout is the absence at the top of the ticket of the first African-American president. 2016 black turnout, in fact, returned to its pre-Obama, 2004 levels. What’s hard to calculate is whether the 2008-2012 turnout boom was a unique event attributable to Obama’s pioneering status (much like the sky-high margins John F. Kennedy won among Catholics in 1960 or Jimmy Carter’s big wins in the Deep South in 1976), or could be replicated by another African-American at the top of the ticket in 2020 or beyond.
There is some suggestive evidence that black candidates still matter with black voters. The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman noted that in the 2019 off-year elections in Mississippi, the white (and culturally conservative) Democratic gubernatorial nominee didn’t generate very robust African-American turnout as compared to the moderate black Senate candidate who ran in a 2018 special election:
[T]urnout in Mississippi was down from last November’s special Senate election, when GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith defeated Democrat Mike Espy 54 percent to 46 percent. The reason? Hood, a conservative white Democrat who had long served as the state’s attorney general, failed to mobilize Mississippi’s black voters to the same extent as Espy, who is African American and had represented the Mississippi Delta in Congress in the 1990s.
In Mississippi counties where white residents outnumber African Americans, 2019 turnout was down just 3 percent versus last fall and Hood took 39 percent, up from Espy’s 37 percent. But in Mississippi counties where African American residents outnumber whites, 2019 turnout was down 8 percent and Hood took just 68 percent, down from Espy’s 69 percent. In Jackson’s Hinds County, the largest in the state, turnout was down 11 percent.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that in the 2020 Democratic presidential nominating contest, two African-American senators whose résumés compare favorably to Obama’s when he first ran are really struggling with black voters. In a recent Monmouth poll of South Carolina, where roughly 60 percent of the primary electorate is African-American (and where Obama romped to a landslide win over Hillary Clinton in 2008), the top-polling black candidate, Kamala Harris, is losing the black vote to Joe Biden by a 39-8 margin. In fact, Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are all beating Harris among black voters. And Cory Booker is mired in the low single digits in South Carolina. Both Harris and Booker have been forced to go all-in on the Iowa Caucuses in an effort to impress black voters later in the schedule that they are viable. And they aren’t doing well there, either. A third on-paper-viable black candidate, Deval Patrick, joined the contest, but this corporate-oriented former governor of a very white state has a lot to prove to black and white voters alike.
Biden’s strong position among black voters at present is a living refutation of another theory: that Democrats can energize African-Americans with an aggressively progressive agenda aimed at addressing economic inequality and institutional racism. Black Democrats are more likely to self-identify as “moderate” than are white Democrats. And ideology aside, a self-conscious pitch to black voters may not work for a candidate who for whatever reason doesn’t resonate with the target: Pete Buttigieg has an impressive agenda for black empowerment he calls the “Douglass Plan.” His African-American following remains very small.
So what are Democrats to do?
It might help if they less conspicuously obsess about other potentially conflicting constituencies like white working-class voters and normally Republican white suburbanites. Traditional base mobilization strategies that have been effective among black voters in the past should get attention and plenty of money.
But perhaps the single best way for Democrats (or if they were willing to do so, Republicans) to boost black turnout is to fight like hell for their right and their opportunity to vote. With voter-suppression efforts ongoing in Republican-governed states all over the country, it’s a target-rich environment for Democratic pols and party leaders to show some serious solidarity with the voters they want to turn out on their own behalf.
If, God forbid, I was in charge of a currently successful Democratic presidential campaign supporting a white candidate, I would whisper into the ear of my boss the idea that she or he should not only consider but perhaps announce early a ticket that includes Georgia 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams. She is African-American and a moderate on most issues, and above all, has devoted herself to voting rights and knows everything there is to know about mobilizing minority voters. If there’s a way to reach Obama-like levels of black turnout in 2020, there’s no one more likely to figure out how to do it, and then to do it.