While President Obama made history by becoming the first black president in 2008, black voters made history four years later. In 2012, for the first time ever, black voter turnout nationally surpassed that of all other groups. But that is unlikely to happen in tomorrow’s election. An even bigger question to consider, however, is whether it will ever happen again. Black voter enthusiasm has been at an all-time high during the era of the first black president, but will this enthusiasm last in the post Obama era?
Clearly there were black voters before Barack Obama, but to put in context the difference between black voter turnout in the Obama era and black voter turnout before, consider this. In 2008 two million more black voters showed up at the polls than had four years before. Among young black voters ages 18 to 24, there was an 8 percent increase in turnout from 2004 to 2008, the highest increase among any demographic, across racial, gender and generational lines.
In a phone interview, Andra Gillespie, a Political Scientist based at Emory University said, “People historically thought black voters participated in the political process and voted because they had confidence in their own ability to effect change in the political system, irrespective of whether they believed politicians cared about what they thought. But there was some work that came out about 25 years ago that suggests that’s not true and that in fact that blacks feel empowered when they see blacks in positions of power.” Gillespie explained that this research did find a connection between the number of likely black voters and black elected leaders..
Though it is an insult to black voters, and frankly to all Americans who voted for Obama, to assume that any black person that voted for him did so because of his race, there were some black Americans inspired to vote for him in the same way there were some Catholic Americans inspired to vote for President John F. Kennedy. Both men’s elections served as a point of pride for some Americans who share cultural commonality with them. There were also voters who believed their ascendance would signal how far we have evolved as a nation, while others simply agreed with them on the issues. And there are others who may be moved to vote for a candidate from an underrepresented group because they believe that it takes a person from a non-privileged background to truly understand the trials and tribulations of the non-privileged, and to represent them effectively.
Part of President Clinton’s enduring popularity can be attributed to the fact that unlike the first President Bush, he could actually identify a supermarket scanner. There wasn’t a doubt in any American’s mind that he and Hillary had clipped a coupon or two, which set him apart from the Gores, Kerry-Heinzes, and Bushes of the world, who enjoyed a measure of privilege that made their attempts to relate to the “little guy” laughable. Yet even Clinton, despite his lack of class privilege, enjoyed one of the greatest forms of privilege that exists in America: being born a white male. President Obama represented the first truly non-privileged, viable presidential candidate, and that resonated with many non-privileged people of color. But it is a mistake to presume that because these voters are Obama loyalists they are Democratic Party loyalists.
Political consultant Basil Smikle, who is African American and has worked for Hillary Clinton among others, theorized the Democratic Party will be unable to maintain Obama-like momentum among black voters, at least not without making some significant changes. He told me, “It is unlikely that Obama-era levels of black voter participation can be sustained without hard evidence that leaders have improved the economic status of black families across the country.”
Black economic prospects still continue to lag far behind that of other groups. Smikle believes economic issues could present an opening for Republicans – particularly with younger voters. “Incidents like the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown will mobilize voters, but there’s a sense that in only instances of tragedy will African American voters be engaged and reminded about their need to go to the polls,” Smikle said. He continued, “Post-Obama African American politics will prove vexing for both parties as more and more black candidates engage in race-neutral politics, which may cause some skepticism among black voters and a growing number of young people are shedding racial and political labels. Republicans have the highest hill to climb but greatest opportunity. If they can stop states from restricting voter access and speak more about economic opportunity and creating household wealth they may see more blacks become swing voters.”
Polling conducted with the Suffolk University Political Research Center for my 2008 book Party Crashing seems to confirm Smikle’s theory. The survey found that a third of young black voters were registered Independents. Which means there could be an opening with these voters for Republicans. They don’t need to win a majority. They just need to peel off enough black voters from Democrats to win, which is the strategy that won the state of Ohio for George W. Bush in 2004.
Orlando Watson, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee wrote in an email: “As we witness support shift toward the Republican Party and the disapproval rating of President Obama among black voters double in just two years, we remain optimistic that the party’s support will broaden.” Kiara Pesante, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee meanwhile said, “We aren’t taking any voter for granted and [are] continuing to connect with African Americans on the issues and policies that most directly impact their lives.”
This midterm election could be the first real test for Democrats as they prepare for the post-Obama era. Andra Gillespie said she “would not make assumptions about higher black turnout in this election. Midterm electorates have higher white turnout in general. Republicans have the enthusiasm advantage [this election.]” But the same was supposed to be true back in 1998 when Democrats stunned just about every political expert with unexpected midterm wins coming in the midst of President Clinton’s impeachment drama. It would not have been possible without higher than expected black voter turnout in key races.
Gillespie explained that data from a new report from the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies indicates that black voters could prove equally decisive in key races this year – particularly in those races in which a third party candidate is running. But in 1998 black voters were particularly loyal to a specific president, who had been nicknamed “the first black president.” The enthusiasm for Bill Clinton was not transferred to the candidates that immediately followed, and the Democratic Party subsequently struggled to re-engage black voters in the ensuing years. But even if black voter turnout surpasses expectations Tuesday, the question will not be if Democrats can keep them engaged in the years to come, but keep them at all.