Democrats Hope for a Huge Black Turnout

In an earlier post, I made reference to the Bradley effect: the tendency of political polls involving black candidates to be incorrect and misleading, because the whites being surveyed, fearful of seeming racist, are unwilling to acknowledge they won’t vote for a black person. The result is that black candidates may be doing worse among voters than the polling numbers indicate.

But there is another issue with current polls that raises the possibility that Barack Obama is doing better than his poll numbers show: the polls don’t accurately reflect the almost certain increase in black voting this year.

Polls are based in part on the voting numbers from prior years. According to the Census Bureau report Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004, Table B, 67.2% of voting-age whites voted in that year’s presidential elections, versus just 60% of voting-age blacks (and 47.2% of voting age Hispanics). So this year’s polls are based in part on that experience. But adjustments are also made to reflect the expected turnout for the current year.

Voting Rates for Blacks and White, by Region, 2004 Election
Percentage of Voting Age Persons Who Voted

Source: Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2004, US Census Bureau

And it certainly looks like this year’s African American voting will be very different from prior years, for two reasons: a massive voter registration and turn-out effort by the Democratic Party, and the enthusiasm of African American voters toward Barack Obama. This article from Black Voice News.com, a news website in the Riverside/San Bernadino section of California, echos comments from articles in dozens of news sources throughout the country:

Call it Obama fever, frustration over joblessness and a crumbling economy, or just plain fed up with the much maligned Republican-led Bush administration, Black voter registration is on fire swelling the rolls in numbers unheard of. Although Republicans are vigorously signing up white voters in the suburbs it appears the GOP is out-organized by Democrat-led drives in Black and Brown precincts in the Inland Empire and across the nation.

According to a “Vote America” analysis, Democrat-affiliated groups “have added tens of thousands of new voters to the rolls in the swing states of Ohio and Florida, a surge that has far exceeded the efforts of Republicans in both states. In California a review of county-by-county data shows new registrations since January have tripled over the same period in 2004. In comparison new registrations have increased just 25 percent in Republican camps.

Rapidly rising registration rolls, facilitated by mountains of money and Black determination to avenge the “Great Theft of 2000”, are creating a 2008 electorate more diverse and volatile than the arbiters of corporate news and polling are accustomed to measuring. Pollsters traditionally assign more weight to voters they deem “likely” to turn out on Election Day.

Despite record numbers of voters who turned out during the presidential primaries last spring, eight million African-Americans or 32 percent of eligible Black voters are still not registered to vote according to Rick Wade, African American vote director for the Obama for America presidential campaign.

During a teleconference of Black media representatives recently Wade illustrated the importance of the 50-state Black voter registration initiative.

“The stakes are extremely high. In 2004, African Americans made up approximately 11 percent of the vote nationwide. If the percentage of African-Americans was a mere two-and-a-half percent higher at 13-and-a-half percent, Democrats would currently be running for reelection in 2008,” he said. For example in the state of Ohio in 2004, Democrats lost by 2% or 100,000 votes. There were 270,000 unregistered African-Americans. So the African-American vote can absolutely make a difference in this election.”

How pivotal could increased black registration and turn-out be to this election? The website FiveThirtyEight.com, a political and polling analysis site, notes the following:

It is something of a myth that African-American voters do not turn out to vote. In 2004, 87.4 percent of registered African-Americans cast a ballot in the Presidential election, according to statistics compiled by the US Census Bureau. This compares with 89.4 percent turnout among registered, non-Hispanic whites. However, voter registration rates lag somewhat behind in the African-American community.

As of 2004, 68.7 percent of African-American citizens aged 18+ were registered to vote, as compared with 75.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Thus, Barack Obama’s 50-state voter registration drive, when coupled with the historical nature of his candidacy, could produce big dividends within this group.

What would be the electoral impact of an increase in African-American participation of 10 percent, 20 percent, or more?…

For each 10 percent increase in African-American turnout, Obama gains approximately 13 electoral votes, and 1 percent in his popular vote margin against John McCain. Even a 10 percent increase is enough to take him from a slight underdog against McCain to a slight favorite…

The mega-question remains: how much greater will black voting be this year? Will it be a 5% increase? A 10% increase? Or more? Nobody knows. But if the black vote simply achieves parity with the white vote (which could also increase this year), that would be a great achievement – and perhaps, the key to an Obama win in November.

PS: The Wall Street Journal has produced an interesting “pop-up map” that shows how an increased black vote could help Barack Obama win in several states that John Kerry lost in his 2004 presidential campaign. Click on the graphic below to see the map. I would caution that, the map suggests scenarios for growth in the black vote that aren’t realistic; but it does highlight some interesting possibilities. The accompanying article to the graphic is here.

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3 thoughts on “Democrats Hope for a Huge Black Turnout

  1. But, will white turnout increase as well? McCain is counting on it. I believe this is the reason he selected Governor Palin. Not because she is female, but because she is a socially conservative female. She shores up victory in red states and can make inroads in purple and blue states. McCain’s presence, alone, was not enough to increase GOP turnout. McCain needed someone else who could make up for the expected increase in African American turnout.

  2. {But, will white turnout increase as well?}

    I’m quite sure that the white vote will increase for this election. But the key thing is not so much that the white and black vote both go up; the question is, how much of a difference will there be between the white vote numbers and the black vote numbers?

    As noted in the post, whites “outvoted” blacks by 67.2% to 60% in 2004. The white vote doesn’t have as much room for growth. Will we see the white vote going past 72% nation-wide, for example? I’m not sure… I suspect that with white voters, the upper limit of voter participation is close to being reached.

    Meanwhile, there’s a lot of room for growth in the voting numbers for the African American population.

    If the black/white gap can go from 67.2%-60% in 2004, to, for example, 70%-68% in 2008, that would be huge for Democrats in several swing states. That’s a big if, though.

    And we haven’t even talked about the impact of the youth vote, which will also break in Obama’s favor, although not by as huge as margin as the black vote.

  3. Great analysis! I hope that all African Americans who have the right to vote will do so. There is a great sense of urgency and we cannot sit by and allow the George Bush era to continue for four more years. The sad reality is, however, that the white turnout may be historic too and one then has to ask, in whose favor. Great piece!

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