As midterm elections near and pundits predict Republican blowouts in November, Democrats appear poised to run that classic racial sob story if they lose control of the Senate: The black folks did it.
RealClearPolitics actually gives Democrats a 1 percent edge over Republicans in a generic congressional ballot, and even Quinnipiac shows voters viewing Democrats as the “lesser of two evils” with a negative approval rating of 30 percent (with 60 percent disapproving), compared with a negative 18-73 percent rating for Republicans. But all of that is too tight to call. Strategists on the left are nervously watching a series of souring polls showing wide enthusiasm gaps between Democratic voters and a Republican base described as “fired up.” A CBS News poll shows 70 percent of Republicans hyped about Election Day, compared with only 58 percent of Democrats.
The reason? Many observers—President Barack Obama among them—believe that traditional base Democratic voters, black voters among them, aren’t running to the polls fast enough … despite the fact that Election Day is just eight months away. A Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research survey calls them the Rising American Electorate—a coalition of black, Latino, Asian, youth and unmarried female voters—of whom only 64 percent are likely to vote in November, compared with 79 percent of white voters.
But according to the president’s Black Book of Tough Love, that same rising electorate has a “congenital disease.” This was his harsh assessment during a Houston fundraiser last week that’s sure to get respun in various forms on the campaign trail.
He’s understandably cranky that his legislative legacy could be undone if Republicans retake the Senate. He’d find his role during the last two years of his presidency largely ceremonial, relegated to giving useless press briefings and Air Force One-hopping the globe in search of foreign policy crises to defuse. So, not unlike a drunken, wife-beating husband, he’s starting to slap around the voters closest to him.
However, Obama and Democrats should beware early blaming of their most loyal constituencies. Beating up on the historically underserved as a way to explain spectacular flaws in strategy is about as tacky and dangerous as kids on a highway overpass dropping rocks onto moving cars.
The bigger question is not so much what voters of color plan to do on Election Day; it’s what white voters—who make up three-quarters of the electorate—will be up to. Democrats can argue that minority voters have a genetic disorder for not going to the polls, but then, what’s their explanation for the fact that so many white voters feel increasingly compelled to vote Republican?
Democrats continue to watch their appeal with white voters shrink precipitously every campaign cycle, from 47 percent during the 2006 midterms to 43 percent in the 2008 election of the first black president. By the 2010 midterms and Obama’s 2012 re-election, white-voter share for Democrats crashed at less than 40 percent.
But while some are busily bullying voters of color over their participation rates, few Democrats are really putting white voters on the spot like that. Huge perception gaps persist between blacks and, in particular, whites, on everything from the president’s job performance to the Affordable Care Act—which ultimately affects who tends to vote for which party.
Brown University political science professor Michael Tesler clinically characterized it as “OFR,” or “old-fashioned racism,” correlating the racial attitudes of white voters with their partisanship. “My research shows that more blatant expressions of racial prejudice are now significantly linked to white Americans’ party identifications after at least two decades of quiescence,” wrote Tesler only days before the 2010 midterm. “It is reasonable to suspect, then, that overt prejudice will also be more closely tied to … vote preferences than they were before Obama became his party’s leader.”
Obviously, though, Democrats don’t want another “clings to guns and religion” moment in which they’re caught bashing white voters for harboring bigoted resentments after two convincing national elections. Doing so could potentially alienate a voting bloc struggling to accept new demographic realities. Registered white voters will ultimately be a major factor in increasingly caustic Senate races in places like Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana, where vulnerable Democrats are holding on by the skin of their teeth.
But there are clearly signs of resentment. It wasn’t too long ago—back in February—when YouGov released a poll (pdf) showing that 44 percent of whites consider the statement “Barack Obama was born in the United States” to be false. And it’s hard to dismiss this as merely run-of-the-mill ignorance of American geography. (Although it’s possible—Americans barely know the century during which we gained independence, so presumably some could be less aware that Obama’s birthplace, Hawaii, is actually part of the United States.)
Clearly, however, white voters will have more influence in the 2014 midterms, by the numbers, than voters of color. Why can’t Democrats find out what’s going on with them? That’s not diminishing the importance of the minority electorate—it’s just recognizing the pure math in this situation. But berating voters of color for their midterm voting habits as if they’re knuckleheaded teens wearing baggy jeans completely defeats the purpose of achieving turnout. Craft a message and strategy that actually inspires them instead of channeling Uncle Ruckus.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.
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.