Where Did All the Black Voters Go on Election Day?

African-American turnout was down and less than enthusiastic without President Obama on the ballot.

Voters in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 4, 2014 
Voters in Ferguson, Mo., on Nov. 4, 2014  Scott Olson/Getty Images

With midterm hangover setting in, many will chatter and finger-point into next month about what happened, who did what and why. And at the center of it will be questions about the black vote. In crucial Senate and gubernatorial races where the black vote was needed most—Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina—Democrats faced humiliating blows to the stomach.

Of course, we’ll hear a number of narratives strung through news cycles, along with crafty theatrical descriptors: the Obama Haters Club election. The Obamacare Sucks election. The Return of the Angry White People election. The Ferguson election. The election in which only 18 percent of the population followed the election closely—and more than 60 percent of those who did voted Republican.

In large part, especially as we tiptoe through the exit polls, it’s safe to claim that Tuesday night was all of the above in historic droves. This was more than a “Chaos Election,” as Brookings fellow Bill Galston sublimed. This election was a knee-jerk reaction to the chaos of stereotypes that white pundits are totally not talking about. Feeling threatened by Ebola, rioting people of color and YouTube decapitations, anxious white voters had about enough: Their vote spiked 3 percentage points higher than in 2012, to a 75 percent share of the 2014 electorate. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed saw it coming, when failed Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn’s campaign pushed out badly played and last-minute Ferguson mailers to mobilize Georgia’s black voters. Said Reed, “[W]hen you are trying to hold on to a regional share of the white electorate, those kinds of pieces have to be handled very delicately.”

As tragic as it was—and as hard as the social-justice crowd tried to make it otherwise—the African-American voting bloc found itself inadequate against the flood and, frankly, not energized enough to hold the dam.

Observers and organizers will go back and forth on this point. Some are already crying foul, rightfully so, over nasty Republican tinkering vis-à-vis voter-ID laws, rigged voting schedules and mysteriously closed polling stations. Those factors had some effect on something, but it’s still too early to tell exactly what and how much. But based on what the pre-election surveys and first-wave exit polls say, this was a weak black vote with a 12 percent nationwide share of Tuesday’s electorate.

We get the point: President Obama wasn’t on the ballot. And it showed. White people were voting in stronger numbers than in 2012. In contrast, the total people-of-color voter share dropped from 28 percent in 2012 to barely 25 percent in 2014. So now Democrats have two midterms to prove that it’s not their party mobilizing Obama coalition voters—it’s Obama.

Well … not anymore. Democrats are likely blasting one another in a rash of circular firing squads, scrambling to explain what happened last night. One bullet point of blame: You should have put President Obama out there where the black vote needed him most. But it didn’t matter. The only place where the president’s endorsement probably made a difference was in the Washington, D.C., mayor’s race—and he didn’t need to bust a sweat for that.

Everywhere else, the black vote went flat. The optics of a stubbornly bad black unemployment rate under the black president didn’t help, and only 68 percent of African Americans approve of the president’s handling of the economy, according to YouGov (pdf). In states like Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana (pdf)—where Democratic candidates bombed or went into a certain-death runoff—black approval ratings for President Obama, according to Public Policy Polling, were 72 percent, 77 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Even in Virginia (pdf), black Obama approval was lower than 80 percent just a month ago.

And it’s not as if that many African Americans were going to vote anyway, right? According to an election-eve YouGov poll (pdf), they weren’t: A hair-pulling 33 percent of black respondents claimed they weren’t even registered to vote. Only 44 percent said they were “definitely” voting, compared with 59 percent of whites. And nearly 50 percent identified themselves as “not a likely voter” when asked about which candidate they’d be voting for in the midterms.

Quite a few ditched the Democratic Party while at it. Democrats should really watch this closely into 2016: Ten percent of black voters on Tuesday went Republican. In critical Senate races such as Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and South Carolina, the black vote went more than 7 percent Republican; now formally elected Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, got 10 percent of the black vote. In gubernatorial races such as those in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan, African-American votes for Republicans ranged from 6 percent in Illinois (the president’s “home state”) to 26 percent for incumbent Gov. John Kasich in Ohio.