Turnout In Black and White

Before it retreated too far into the distance, I wanted to draw attention to an AP analysis of the relationship between demographic change and turnout in affecting election results, which was released over the weekend. Here’s the big lede, as written up by Hope Yen:

America’s blacks voted at a higher rate than other minority groups in 2012 and by most measures surpassed the white turnout for the first time, reflecting a deeply polarized presidential election in which blacks strongly supported Barack Obama while many whites stayed home.

Had people voted last November at the same rates they did in 2004, when black turnout was below its current historic levels, Republican Mitt Romney would have won narrowly, according to an analysis conducted for The Associated Press.

A Pew study back in December reported similar conclusions a bit more tentatively.

The takeaway depends on one’s perspective. The conservative movement’s counter-intuitive but intensely held “move right to win” hypothesis will gain new a new talking point: white turnout dropped in 2008 and 2012 because Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney failed to excite “the base.” Progressives will counter that there’s no inherent reason white folk should vote in higher percentages than minority voters, particularly when one of the two major parties oozes contempt for the latter.

Republicans will hope and Democrats will fret that until the next African-American presidential nominee comes along, the older patterns of black and white turnout could reemerge–or event that 2008 and 2012 are unrepeatable events given the historic nature of the Obama candidacy. But while this is the first presidential election where black voter turnout was higher than white turnout, it’s happened before at the state level, most memorably in 1998, when Democrats surprisingly picked up the governorships of three Deep South states after Republicans got a little carried away with veiled or overt race-baiting. Sure, there’s nothing quite like a viable minority candidate at the top of a Democrat ticket to boost minority turnout, but any racially-tinged political dynamics–say, a major Republican effort to suppress minority voting opportunities, or use of blatant racial codes about “those people” who are dependent on government and “welfare”–can have a similar effect.

So no, I don’t think the turnout patterns of the last two presidential elections are necessarily aberrations from the “normal” situation where white turnout consistently exceeds black turnout. And it’s not clear Republican political pros will buy that idea either: if they do, you’d expect them to pull back from the voter suppression drive of 2010-2012, on the theory that it may have backfired and now isn’t necessary. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.