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.
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.
You’d think Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Obama’s archnemesis, would have a tough time getting even one black vote in Kentucky. But it now makes sense why he’d drop money into a more-than-one-minute ad showcasing a black Kentucky constitutent. All McConnell has to do is steal a few African-American votes from spirited challenger Alison Lundergan-Grimes. Grimes finally pushed through to 90 percent of black voters in a YouGov poll, but 5 percent were still undecided, and 11 percent were bucking for McConnell only a month ago—with nearly 20 percent giving him a head nod in a mid-August PPP survey (pdf).
In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) needs all the black votes she can get. But YouGov shows black voters in the bayou scrambling in a nine-candidate race, with disqualified preacher Raymond Brown still eating up 5 percent and 17 percent undecided. In the most recent PPP poll (pdf), Republican Bill Cassidy still manages a crucial 6 percent of the black vote—and a 17 percent favorability, even though black Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) says, “Dude is weird.”
North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is ahead but still feeling Republican challenger Thom Tillis at her heels. In a race where black votes would get her even farther ahead, PPP shows (pdf) Tillis with 7 percent of that bloc and 14 percent undecided (even after Republicans played crazy voter-ID and early-voting games in that state).
And in some cases, they’re just not that into President Obama anymore, with black disapproval rates in some of those states matching the current black unemployment rate, which is still in the double digits. Multiple Steve Harvey Show pleas to give “the president and the first lady … the opportunities to really use these last two years on our behalf” won’t cut it if the president is having trouble specifically outlining what’s troubling black folks other than the ones living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.