The Root: The Blame Game Has Already Started: the Myth Of the Depressed Black Turnout

Apparently the fate of the Clinton campaign, if not the American Republic falls on the shoulders of African American voters.

This week CNN rang the alarm bells with an article stating that the black vote was declining with 24 million early votes cast. Politico followed suit with a story on how weak African American turnout in Florida has put the Clinton campaign on high alert. With these headlines a literal free for all has broken out on black social media and blogs as anyone who isn’t voting (or dares to flirt with a third party) are being preemptively blamed for a Trump presidency, and the racial apocalypse that will supposedly cause. With a week to go before election-day the narrative has emerged that Clinton’s failure to excite African Americans to Obama levels is coming home to roost in the form of lower than ‘expected’ early voting numbers from swing states, which will in turn cost her the election. This is wonderful click bait for stressed out Democrats, but this narrative is both empirically not true and plays into dangerous internal racial politics of the American left.

It is hard to follow greatness, and be recognized for your own accomplishments, but it’s necessary. LeBron didn’t have to be Michael Jordan to still be an all-time champion; Beyonce doesn’t have to be Tina Turner to be a pop culture icon; 30 Rock didn’t have to be Seinfeld in order to influence a generation of TV watchers. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have to match Obama with black voters to win the presidency. She just has to do better than John Kerry.

The early voting numbers a week out appear damaging and support the damaged Clinton narrative on the surface. In 2012, African Americans made up 25 percent of the early vote and thus far in 2016 they are only at 15 percent. In North Carolina African Americans made up 27 percent of early voters in 2012 and only account for 22 percent in 2016. In fact, across other key battleground states like Ohio and Georgia early voting numbers appear to be down and the quadrennial pre-election freak out amongst Democrats has begun. Activists and CBC members are pointing fingers, dozens of “Dear friends” emails are being sent to black friends and family members on Facebook declaring a state of early vote emergency. It is officially time to panic about the black vote right? Wrong.

Why? First, setting the bar for black turnout at Obama levels was always unrealistic for Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama is a once in a generation political leader, he brought out millions of previously disengaged and uninterested voters in addition to inspiring historic African American turnout. Nobody, outside of a magical Michelle Obama/Corey Booker ticket could reach that level of excitement and turnout. 

However despite Obama being a tough act to follow, historically the black vote is on Hillary Clinton’s side. African American turnout in presidential election years has gone up every cycle since 1984. In fact, the largest single year increase in African American voter turnout in the last 20 years wasn’t Barack Obama in 2008. Black turnout increased a full 8.5 percent (from 52.9 percent to 61.4 percent) from the 2000 to the 2004 presidential election, and just continued to rise with a certain former senator from Illinois (69.1 percent in 2008 with a slight dip to 67.4 percent in 2012).

This isn’t to suggest that President Barack Obama didn’t galvanize black voters in a unique way, but history suggests that even with Obama not on the ballot, and in the face of horrendous voter suppression, black turnout may drop slightly but not catastrophically for Hillary Clinton. If Hillary Clinton’s African American turnout numbers settles somewhere between peak Obama (69.1 percent) and John Kerry (61.4 percent) then she will likely win the White House. Beyond the historical precedent there is also a context in which this ‘depressed’ black turnout should be understood for the final vote next week. Hispanic and white turnout in early voting has increased in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, which makes the percentage of black voters smaller than in past elections. For example, according to Nse Ufot, head of the New Georgia Project, a non-partisan voter registration program based in Atlanta, there has been an explosion of Latino turnout in early voting which has rendered the black vote smaller.

“Our baseline is 30 percent of the early vote being African American,” Ufot said. “And right now we’re at 31 percent. So no one is hitting the panic button yet.”

Not to go too far into the statistical weeds but these percentages make a difference. Barack Obama earned 38 percent of white voters in 2012, the lowest percentage of white voters of anyone to get elected president. Hillary Clinton will certainly do better than Obama with white voters, likely besting his equally weak 42 percent in 2008. Hillary’s increased Hispanic and white support, mixed with Trump’s all but certain 0-2 percent of the black vote gives her pretty solid ground even with black voters reverting to some sort of increased electoral mean. So what about the panic and the black vote blame game that has become the political topic de jour?

Racial scapegoating of blacks by the political left is not new but that makes it no less problematic. In 2009 African Americans were blamed for the passage of California’s anti-Gay marriage Proposition 8 Bill despite math that said otherwise.  African Americans were chastised this spring for failing to rally around Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Primary. Now we have preemptive finger wagging at black voters if they don’t get their souls to the polls for Hillary Clinton. It is this very notion that African American voters, who are often last in line for policy benefits from white progressive candidates, are somehow still saddled with the primary burden of getting those white progressive candidates elected is perverse, and contributes to the very ‘low turnout’ problems that are being lamented. African Americans had to literally die on camera in order to get the issue of criminal justice onto the plate of Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders for that matter). Voter suppression policies targeting black areas have run rampant over the last 18 months. All the while African American voters have watched an occasionally complicit media give an open platform to racists on the nightly news as well as endless fawning and empathic think pieces on bigoted Trump supporters. Yet somehow black voters are supposed to take off their house shoes and come to the aid of Hillary Clinton with the same gusto elicited for the first African American president? It’s a miracle that early voting turnout has dropped by such minimal levels.

Hillary Clinton is doing about as well as can be expected with African American voters. She will probably do better than almost any white Democratic nominee in history. November 8th will be close, but the numbers and demographics of the race are still in her favor. However the “Blame the black voter” narrative should be addressed once the final votes are cast. Black folks can’t carry the Democratic party forever. 

This article originally appeared online at The Root.

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