On Nov. 2, when Republican candidates routed their opponents to take control of the House and narrow the gap in the Senate, just 10 percent of the electorate consisted of African Americans. In 2008 blacks made up 12 percent of all voters, a high that helped put the first African-American president over the top and into the Oval Office. Still, 12 percent is nothing to brag about, and 10 percent is even less so. (The 2008 census estimate put the African-American population at just under 13 percent.)
It's well-known that if African Americans are ever going to achieve true political parity with whites (who made up more than 76 percent of the electorate in 2008), they need to close the racial voting gap. For the first time in American history, blacks did that in 2008. Two years later, enthusiasm has clearly fallen off.
To discuss what went wrong in 2010, and to look forward to the 2012 election, The Root talked to voting expert David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies — a nonprofit institution that conducts research on public-policy issues of special concern to African Americans and other people of color — and author of "Blacks and the 2010 Midterms: A Preliminary Analysis."
Don't worry, says Bositis. Obama will win in 2012.
The Root: Black turnout was up slightly from the 2006 midterms, but it's still not the turnout people wanted. What went wrong?
David Bositis: Well you always have problems getting African Americans to the polls in midterm elections. People who vote on a very regular basis tend to be better educated, they tend to be older and they tend to be white — that's just how it's always been.
And if you think about it, it theoretically makes sense. A lot of those older voters are retired; they have nothing to do during a day but vote. And not only that, there's a lot more effort made to accommodate older voters than younger voters. They have polling places in retirement communities, where it's convenient for older people to vote.
On the other hand, with younger voters, you have certain parties and organizations trying to keep them from voting. For instance, when Obama ran, there were certain college towns where there was a substantial effort made to try and keep younger voters from voting. It's always been the case.
TR: Your paper states that this election was a repudiation of the party in power, but you say that that's always what happens during periods of economic distress. The big conservative talking point right now is that this is, in fact, a repudiation of Obama specifically.
DB: That's totally bogus. As a matter of fact, Obama is individually much more popular than any of the [Republican politicians] who are saying that.
TR: So this is something we should continue to expect as a nation? In periods of economic distress, people will just vote out the party in power?
TR: So it was a perfect storm for the Republicans?
DB: Absolutely. And on one level you could make the case that that was not a fair judgment, especially because the Democrats' opponents were doing absolutely nothing to try and improve the economy. But again, in a theoretical sense, that's the way democracies are supposed to work. If the party in power isn't delivering, it gets thrown out.
TR: Your paper says that this year, 9 percent of black voters voted for Republicans in House races. In 2008 only 4 percent of blacks voted for the Republican ticket. Is this a significant shift in black GOP voters?
DB: No. Remember that Bob Dole got 13 percent of the black vote against Bill Clinton, who everyone called the first black president. There's absolutely no movement toward the Republican Party. That's actually a normal breakdown of the black vote in the post-civil rights era. Even George W. Bush, when he first ran for president, got 8 percent of the black vote. And the second time he ran, he got 11 percent.
TR: The paper notes that Illinois and Ohio did spectacularly well in drumming up the black vote for these midterms. What can others learn from those states to summon the same kind of turnout?
DB: First of all, in Illinois, the heaviest concentration of black voters is in Cook County, where things are very well organized. That's the way things work in Cook County. Beyond that, my sense of why the turnout was so large was that African Americans wanted to keep Obama's Senate seat in Democratic hands. They strongly support Obama in that state.
In Ohio, I think, you had a couple of things: You not only had the desire to support President Obama but also had the Democrats running two black candidates. Strickland's running mate was a black woman [Yvette McGee Brown], and there was a black Democrat running for state treasurer [incumbent Kevin Boyce].
TR: Other states that you note had a large turnout were California and New York. Do you think you can credit their success mostly to the fact that they have large black populations?
DB: In terms of California, that was another place where you had a black candidate running for statewide office — Kamala Harris. Also, a very high percentage of black voters in California are longtime political participants. If you look at the post-civil rights history of California, it's tied with Florida and Georgia for having the most black congresspeople. Willie Brown has also long been a major mover and shaker in California. You've got a substantial black involvement in California politics.
That being said, strangely enough, California had two Republican candidates, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, who got more of the black vote than any of the Republican candidates anywhere else.
TR: Why was that? Whitman, an out-of-touch billionaire, seems like the exact opposite of what African-American voters would be looking for.
TR: Looking forward, what lessons can we learn to ensure that we get a healthy black turnout in 2012?
DB: I think there was a strong effort made to get out the black vote in many places this year. And I think that's because people wanted to support Obama. What's good about 2012 is that Obama's going to be on the ticket — contrary to what that guy Doug Schoen wrote.
TR: So you would consider 2010 a success in terms of getting out the black vote?
DB: On balance, yes, I would. Here's the thing: The black vote is not going to carry elections by itself. As my paper says, there was an extraordinary turnout for a candidate like [Illinois Senate candidate] Alexi Giannoulias. But Illinois' population is only about 15 percent black, and that 15 percent isn't going to be dictating to the rest of the population of Illinois. So whoever runs does have to get support from enough white voters.
TR: You said that you think Obama is going to be on the ballot in 2012. How do you think he'll fare with black voters?
DB: I'm sure he'll get the same black vote he got in 2008.
TR: And how about with voters in general?
DB: I think he'll win. I definitely think he's the favorite, and the Republicans still don't have anybody. Who are they going to run? Sarah Palin? Get serious.
TR: Polls predict that Obama would beat Palin badly if she ran.
DB: Of course! The problem for the GOP is that that's pretty much true of all the Republicans. [Mitt] Romney is a Mormon. There are many things I like about the Mormons, but in one respect they are arguably a cult. The simple truth is that outsiders don't get to see what's happening in their services. Romney's in-laws did not get to attend their daughter's wedding because they aren't Mormon. Just think about that. He's also a totally empty suit. He may very well be a smart person and sincere, but he's an empty suit.
And [Mike] Huckabee? The last thing the Republican Party needs to [do is] remind the rest of the country that [it] is a Southern party. Newt Gingrich would also lose because he's a thoroughly despicable person. We're supposed to believe Gingrich is going to be president? Can you imagine having to live with [him] as president for four years? The entitlement problem would go away because half the people in the country would blow their brains out.
TR: So Obama wins?
DB: The Republicans have some people who could be sensible opponents — say, [Indiana Gov.] Mitch Daniels — but many of them are in the House. And the last time a member of the House was elected president was in the 1840s. So all these clowns in the House who say, "Well, I'm thinking of running for president!" — yeah, right!
Cord Jefferson is The Root's Washington correspondent.