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POLITICS: Campaigns

Would black voter turnout matter in key Senate races?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Michael Barone,Senate,2014 Elections,Campaigns

Jonathan Martin of the New York Times reports on how Democratic Party strategists are hoping to maximize black turnout in order to preserve their Senate majority. One might question whether this really counts as news, given that black Americans have been voting overwhelmingly Democratic for a half-century: It always makes sense for Democrats to mobilize black turnout. But the fact that Democratic spinmeisters are evidently pitching this line carries a whiff of desperation. For the fact is that there are relatively few blacks in most of the states with seriously contested Senate races.

In the 2010 Census, 13.6 percent of Americans classified themselves as “black or African-American alone or in combination.” (Barack Obama, who made much of his biracial parentage, classified himself as black alone.) The black percentages, rounded off, in 13 states with seriously contested Senate races are shown in the table, together with the percentage of whites’ votes cast for Obama according to the exit poll in 2012 (in the states with exit polls that year) and 2008 (when exit polls were conducted in every state). The eight states with below-national-average black percentages are grouped together, as are the five states with above-national-average black percentages.


It's apparent that even the most vigorous black turnout effort in the eight states with low black percentages is not going to make much difference. Democrats there must hope that their candidates can maintain levels of support from whites at or above the levels achieved by Obama in 2008 and 2012. In addition, Democrats in Colorado must hope they can maintain something like the 75 to 23 percent margin Obama won among Hispanics there in 2012 according to the exit poll. (Note: I have been skeptical, just based on instinct and observation of county vote totals, about the Colorado exit poll, which I suspect understates Obama support among whites and overstates it among Hispanics.)

In the five states with above-national-average black percentages, there’s obviously good reason for Democrats to try to bolster black turnout. But to win a Democratic candidate must also do significantly better than Obama did among whites in Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana and somewhat better than in North Carolina. Black turnout was very robust in North Carolina, thanks to both the Obama organization and to spontaneous enthusiasm. And it was robust in the three other states as well, due to spontaneous enthusiasm and despite laws requiring voters to show photo identification, a measure which some have likened to the police dogs and fire hoses that Democratic National Committeeman Bull Connor unleashed on peaceful blacks in 1963.

In sum, if blacks vote 90 to 10 percent Democratic, increased black turnout helps Democrats in Senate races. That’s simple arithmetic. But increased black turnout by itself is unlikely to make the difference except in very close races this year. If that's all that Democrats have to fall back on, they're in trouble.

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