Democratic Candidates Must Work Harder to Lock in Black Voters

New polls are showing weaker-than-usual African-American support for Democratic candidates, while the GOP is gaining ground with voters of color.

Voters line up to vote outside Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in the presidential election Nov. 4, 2008, in Birmingham, Ala.
Voters line up to vote outside Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in the presidential election Nov. 4, 2008, in Birmingham, Ala. Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s hard not to see this coming. Democrats will be popping Tylenols in bed the morning of Nov. 5—only hours after election-night returns stream in. And once political junkies sort out the scorched earth, some will point not only to the absence of usually reliable, Democratic-leaning black voters at the polls but also to the support of Republican candidates by more than a few African Americans.

That’s obviously problematic for Democrats. Election watchers will expect relative success from the GOP’s agenda-less tap into the visceral anti-Obama rage of its base. But the real story is that the once-solid Democratic coalition of young people, women and people of color has turned for the worst. It is a barely recognizable shell of its former 2008 and 2012 self. No set of GOP-inspired voter-suppression laws will motivate it. No pleas from the president can fire it up. And in the postmortem audit, African-American voters could be shouldering a disproportionate share of the blame if Republicans are running things well into President Barack Obama’s last two years.

For the record: Of course the vast majority of black voters who do bother turning out will break left.

The untold story, however, is in rather peculiar black trends and shifts showing up in Senate and gubernatorial polls since August. No battleground-state Democratic candidate enjoys the solid 85 or 90-plus percent of African-American support typically needed to win tight races against determined white Republican-leaning votes. Meanwhile, Republican nominees are actually snagging more than 5 percent of the black vote, with a couple in double-digit territory.

“It’s not so surprising,” former Republican National Committee chair and current GOP strategist Michael Steele explains to The Root. “Many of these races are localized to the individual candidates. There is a relationship that’s been there for a long time; it’s always been there, and people are starting to pay attention to it.” Steele, Maryland’s first black lieutenant governor, who failed to win a 2006 U.S. Senate bid, cites the Republican Mississippi Senate primary as an example where African-American voters familiar with incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) helped him push back a tough Tea Party challenger.

Where it’s happening is where you think it shouldn’t: in deep South spots like Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and North Carolina in the Senate wars; or reliably black blue states like Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Ohio, where a strangely higher-than-normal share of black voters are sneaking over to the Republican side, while even larger numbers are undecided.  

Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio), touting an endorsement from the Buckeye State’s black newspaper, gets a convincing 15 percent nod from black voters in his re-election bid.

In Maryland, Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown is on the cusp of becoming that state’s first black governor—but the race finds his ground game spectacularly weak and not even hitting 70 percent of the black vote, according to YouGov. In a Republican-leaning Gravis poll that properly weighed a 27 percent black sample, Brown is only 3 points ahead of unimpressive GOP nominee Larry Hogan.    

In Arkansas, YouGov shows Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Pryor finally getting a bump in black support from 68 percent in September to 76 percent now—but 15 percent are still “not sure,” and it probably took a Bill Clinton visit to change that from 20 percent a month prior, when 7 percent of African Americans were going for Tom Cotton.

Georgia, land of black Atlanta, is a bit bizarre. A tight Senate race for an open seat between Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue should be mid-90th percentile black vote for Nunn, thereby putting some distance between them. Instead, YouGov shows Perdue rocking 5 percent of the black vote (when Nunn can’t break to 80) and 10 percent undecided. SurveyUSA gives Perdue 9 percent of that, and PPP (pdf), a Democratic firm, gives Perdue 10 percent of the black Peach State vote.