Trump Surge or Revolt? Black Voter Turnout Skyrockets in Ga., Va. GOP Primaries

On Super Tuesday, more African Americans voted in open Republican primaries in Georgia and Virginia, but what does it mean?

GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, flanked by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, holds press conference in Palm Beach, Fla., on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016. 
GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, flanked by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, holds press conference in Palm Beach, Fla., on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016.  John Moore/Getty Images

African-American voters are the biggest story coming out of Super Tuesday, to the surprise of many in both parties. Republican turnout was higher than Democratic turnout in just about every state, but the numbers in two places, Georgia and Virginia, are particularly striking.

In both states, African-American turnout in the Republican primaries jumped by historic numbers. In Georgia, turnout in the GOP primary jumped from just 3 percent African American in 2012 to 7 percent in 2016. That’s an increase of more than 100 percent. In Virginia, black turnout jumped from 2 percent in 2012 to 9 percent in 2016, a more than 400 percent increase. This is the equivalent of the GOP black audience going from backyard-concert-sized to a capacity crowd at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in just one election. Now everyone from Marco Rubio to Hillary Clinton and, of course, Donald Trump wants to know why.

The answer is a lot trickier than most politicians realize.  

African-American Voter Turnout in GOP Primaries      
  2008 2012 2016
Virginia 3% 2% 9%
Georgia 2% 3% 7%

The Republican Party would like you to believe that this jump in turnout is a result of its extensive outreach programs in the African-American community. Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus has made it a point to reach out to African-American voters in traditionally Democratic states and urban areas to expand the party.

But while there has been some success in this regard, it’s difficult to imagine that black voters are suddenly going to come out en masse to support Republican candidates in two Southern states based on an outreach program that just started a few years ago. Urban radio and black newspapers are still pretty much ignored by candidates for the Republican nomination, and the last time most Republican candidates set foot in a Southern black church was to pay respects after last summer’s Mother Emanuel church shootings in Charleston, S.C.

Another theory is that Donald Trump (or a combination of Trump and other candidates) has become very attractive to African-American voters, who were then drawn to the Republican primary to vote. There were two polls taken late in 2015 that showed that in a head-to-head matchup between Hillary Clinton and Trump, the GOP front-runner would get 25 percent (Survey USA) and even 40 percent (Clout Research [pdf]) of the African-American vote.

Perhaps the high turnout of black voters in the Georgia and Virginia GOP primaries consisted of black Trump fans who couldn’t wait until November to cast their ballot. (We already know that some of the Atlanta Housewives are down to stump for Trump.) The problem is that those 2015 polls had incredibly small numbers of black voters and can’t be trusted to predict much. The one where Trump got 40 percent of the black vote? Only 10 African Americans were surveyed in total. More recent surveys show Trump in line with most other recent Republican presidential candidates who weren’t facing President Barack Obama, which means getting anywhere from 4 percent to 12 percent of the black vote.

When I asked Nse Ufot, field director of the New Georgia project, a nonprofit that specializes in getting out the vote of black, Latino and single women in Georgia, she seemed skeptical of any Trump surge.

“I don’t see anything here that suggests an upswing in [black] support for Trump,” she said. “Even in more conservative downstate Georgia, there hasn’t been a rush to the polls of black voters for Trump or any other Republican, really.”