With midterm hangover setting in, many will chatter and finger-point into next month about what happened, who did what and why. And at the center of it will be questions about the black vote. In crucial Senate and gubernatorial races where the black vote was needed most—Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, North Carolina—Democrats faced humiliating blows to the stomach.
Of course, we’ll hear a number of narratives strung through news cycles, along with crafty theatrical descriptors: the Obama Haters Club election. The Obamacare Sucks election. The Return of the Angry White People election. The Ferguson election. The election in which only 18 percent of the population followed the election closely—and more than 60 percent of those who did voted Republican.
In large part, especially as we tiptoe through the exit polls, it’s safe to claim that Tuesday night was all of the above in historic droves. This was more than a “Chaos Election,” as Brookings fellow Bill Galston sublimed. This election was a knee-jerk reaction to the chaos of stereotypes that white pundits are totally not talking about. Feeling threatened by Ebola, rioting people of color and YouTube decapitations, anxious white voters had about enough: Their vote spiked 3 percentage points higher than in 2012, to a 75 percent share of the 2014 electorate. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed saw it coming, when failed Democratic Senate candidate Michelle Nunn’s campaign pushed out badly played and last-minute Ferguson mailers to mobilize Georgia’s black voters. Said Reed, “[W]hen you are trying to hold on to a regional share of the white electorate, those kinds of pieces have to be handled very delicately.”
As tragic as it was—and as hard as the social-justice crowd tried to make it otherwise—the African-American voting bloc found itself inadequate against the flood and, frankly, not energized enough to hold the dam.
Observers and organizers will go back and forth on this point. Some are already crying foul, rightfully so, over nasty Republican tinkering vis-à-vis voter-ID laws, rigged voting schedules and mysteriously closed polling stations. Those factors had some effect on something, but it’s still too early to tell exactly what and how much. But based on what the pre-election surveys and first-wave exit polls say, this was a weak black vote with a 12 percent nationwide share of Tuesday’s electorate.
We get the point: President Obama wasn’t on the ballot. And it showed. White people were voting in stronger numbers than in 2012. In contrast, the total people-of-color voter share dropped from 28 percent in 2012 to barely 25 percent in 2014. So now Democrats have two midterms to prove that it’s not their party mobilizing Obama coalition voters—it’s Obama.
Well … not anymore. Democrats are likely blasting one another in a rash of circular firing squads, scrambling to explain what happened last night. One bullet point of blame: You should have put President Obama out there where the black vote needed him most. But it didn’t matter. The only place where the president’s endorsement probably made a difference was in the Washington, D.C., mayor’s race—and he didn’t need to bust a sweat for that.
Everywhere else, the black vote went flat. The optics of a stubbornly bad black unemployment rate under the black president didn’t help, and only 68 percent of African Americans approve of the president’s handling of the economy, according to YouGov (pdf). In states like Arkansas, Kentucky and Louisiana (pdf)—where Democratic candidates bombed or went into a certain-death runoff—black approval ratings for President Obama, according to Public Policy Polling, were 72 percent, 77 percent and 81 percent, respectively. Even in Virginia (pdf), black Obama approval was lower than 80 percent just a month ago.
And it’s not as if that many African Americans were going to vote anyway, right? According to an election-eve YouGov poll (pdf), they weren’t: A hair-pulling 33 percent of black respondents claimed they weren’t even registered to vote. Only 44 percent said they were “definitely” voting, compared with 59 percent of whites. And nearly 50 percent identified themselves as “not a likely voter” when asked about which candidate they’d be voting for in the midterms.
Quite a few ditched the Democratic Party while at it. Democrats should really watch this closely into 2016: Ten percent of black voters on Tuesday went Republican. In critical Senate races such as Georgia, Kentucky, Virginia and South Carolina, the black vote went more than 7 percent Republican; now formally elected Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, got 10 percent of the black vote. In gubernatorial races such as those in Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan, African-American votes for Republicans ranged from 6 percent in Illinois (the president’s "home state”) to 26 percent for incumbent Gov. John Kasich in Ohio.
That’s significant, considering that only 6 percent voted for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, and 5 percent for John McCain in 2008. Broken down further, it’s a grim picture for the next cycle if hemorrhaging continues. Exit polls show that about 11 percent of African-American millennials who did vote went Republican, and 12 percent of black Gen Xers voted GOP (along with 7 percent of those ages 45-64). Could that be the makings of the 30 percent presumptive that 2016 GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was talking about?
Note to Hillary Clinton fans: She’s not “the one.” The key takeaway for 2016 that resonated the loudest on Tuesday night: Every state through which Bill and Hillary Clinton stumped was lost to Republicans. “Every single person the Clintons worked for is getting beat,” one former elected official asking for anonymity told The Root on Tuesday evening. “Everyone. They didn’t move the base.” And according to that same YouGov poll, only 53 percent of African Americans have a “very favorable” opinion of Hillary—compared with 11 percent who don’t know. “A 60-plus-year-old white woman who has not had a job outside of politics in 30 years will not excite the Obama coalition,” said the elected official.
Only white Republicans were in the mood to make history on Tuesday night—for black Republicans. It was certainly the case in Maryland, where black Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown squandered a wide-open opportunity to become the state’s first black governor. Brown completely underestimated the racial landscape and Republican challenger Larry Hogan’s ground game. Elsewhere, state Sen. Nina Turner may have helped increase black-voter turnout in Ohio by 1 percentage point from 2012 to 16 percent, but it wasn’t enough to become the Buckeye State’s first black secretary of state (perhaps inadvertently helping Kasich more). The only winner of “firsts” was black Republican, and firebrand, Mia Love, who won a House seat. Here’s your mouthful: Not only did she become Utah’s first black member of Congress, but she is the first black Republican female member of Congress, the first Haitian American elected to Congress and one of only a handful of black residents living in her very red district.
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.