The Blame Game Has Already Started: The Myth of the Depressed Black Turnout

North Carolina residents wait in line to get into the Charlotte Mecklenburg University City Library to vote early Oct. 24, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C.
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Apparently, the fate of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, if not the American republic, falls on the shoulders of African-American voters.

This week, CNN rang the alarm bells with an article stating that the black vote was declining, with 24 million early votes cast. Politico followed suit with a story about how weak African-American turnout in Florida has put the Clinton campaign on high alert. With these headlines, a free-for-all has broken out on black social media and blogs, with anyone who isn’t voting (or dares to flirt with a third party) being pre-emptively blamed for a Donald Trump presidency and the racial apocalypse that will supposedly cause.


With a week to go before Election Day, the narrative has emerged that Hillary Clinton’s failure to excite African Americans to Obama levels is coming home to roost in the form of lower-than-"expected" early-voting numbers from swing states, which will in turn cost her the election. This is wonderful click bait for stressed-out Democrats, but this narrative is both empirically not true and plays into dangerous internal racial politics of the American left.

It is hard to follow greatness and be recognized for your own accomplishments, but it’s necessary. LeBron James didn’t have to be Michael Jordan to still be an all-time champion; Beyoncé doesn’t have to be Tina Turner to be a pop culture icon; 30 Rock didn’t have to be Seinfeld in order to influence a generation of TV watchers. Hillary Clinton doesn’t have to match Barack Obama with black voters to win the presidency. She just has to do better than John Kerry.

The early-voting numbers a week out appear damaging and support the “damaged Clinton” narrative on the surface. In 2012, African Americans made up 25 percent of the early vote in Florida, and thus far in 2016, they are only at 15 percent. In North Carolina, African Americans made up 27 percent of early voters in 2012 and only account for 22 percent in 2016. In fact, across other key battleground states like Ohio and Georgia, early-voting numbers appear to be down and the quadrennial pre-election freak-out among Democrats has begun.

Activists and Congressional Black Caucus members are pointing fingers, and dozens of “Dear friends” emails are being sent to black friends and family members on Facebook declaring a state of early-vote emergency. It is officially time to panic about the black vote, right? Wrong.


Why? First, setting the bar for black turnout at Obama levels was always unrealistic for Hillary Clinton. Obama is a once-in-a-generation political leader. He brought out millions of previously disengaged and uninterested voters in addition to inspiring historic African-American turnout. Nobody, outside of a magical Michelle Obama-Cory Booker ticket, could reach that level of excitement and turnout. 

Despite Obama being a tough act to follow, historically, the black vote is on Clinton’s side. African-American turnout in presidential election years has gone up every cycle since 1984. In fact, the largest single-year increase in African-American voter turnout in the last 20 years wasn’t for Obama in 2008. Black turnout increased a full 8.5 percentage points (from 52.9 percent to 61.4 percent) from the 2000 to the 2004 presidential election, and just continued to rise with a certain former senator from Illinois (69.1 percent in 2008, with a slight dip to 67.4 percent in 2012).


This isn’t to suggest that President Obama didn’t galvanize black voters in a unique way, but history suggests that even with Obama not on the ballot, and in the face of horrendous voter suppression, black turnout may drop slightly, but not catastrophically, for Hillary Clinton. If Clinton's African-American turnout numbers settle somewhere between peak Obama (69.1 percent) and Kerry (61.4 percent). then she will likely win the White House.

Beyond the historical precedent, there is also a context in which this "depressed" black turnout should be understood for the final vote next week. Hispanic and white turnout in early voting has increased in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, which makes the percentage of black voters smaller than in past elections. For example, according to Nse Ufot, head of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voter-registration program based in Atlanta, there has been an explosion of Latino turnout in early voting, which has rendered the black vote smaller.


“Our baseline is 30 percent of the early vote being African American,” Ufot said. “And right now we’re at 31 percent. So no one is hitting the panic button yet.”

Not to go too far into the statistical weeds, but these percentages make a difference. Obama earned 38 percent of white voters in 2012, the lowest percentage of white voters of anyone to get elected president. Clinton will certainly do better than Obama with white voters, likely besting his equally weak 42 percent in 2008. Clinton’s increased Hispanic and white support, mixed with Trump’s all but certain 0 percent to 2 percent of the black vote, gives her pretty solid ground, even with black voters reverting to some sort of increased electoral mean. So what about the panic and the black-vote blame game that have become the political topic du jour?


Racial scapegoating of blacks by the political left is not new, but that makes it no less problematic. In 2009, African Americans were blamed for the passage of California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8 bill despite math that said otherwise.. African Americans were chastised this spring for failing to rally around Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary. Now we have pre-emptive finger-wagging at black voters if they don’t get their souls to the polls for Hillary Clinton.

It is this very notion—that African-American voters, who are often last in line for policy benefits from white progressive candidates, are somehow still saddled with the primary burden of getting those white progressive candidates elected—that is perverse, and contributes to the very "low turnout" problems that are being lamented.


African Americans had to literally die on camera in order to get the issue of criminal justice onto the plate of Clinton (and Sanders, for that matter). Voter-suppression policies targeting black areas have run rampant over the last 18 months. All the while, African-American voters have watched an occasionally complicit media give an open platform to racists on the nightly news, as well as endless fawning and empathetic think pieces on bigoted Trump supporters.

Yet, somehow, black voters are supposed to take off their house shoes and come to the aid of Clinton with the same gusto elicited for the first African-American president? It’s a miracle that early-voting turnout has dropped by such minimal levels.


Clinton is doing about as well as can be expected with African-American voters. She will probably do better than almost any other white Democratic nominee in history. Nov. 8 will be close, but the numbers and demographics of the race are still in her favor. However, the “Blame the black voter” narrative should be addressed once the final votes are cast. Black folks can’t carry the Democratic Party forever. 

Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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