Dems ponder drop in black voter turnout

Democrats are bracing for a precipitous drop in black voter turnout next month and beyond.

Alarms are being rung about just how many African-Americans will vote without President Barack Obama on the ballot, and the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races in three weeks will provide the first major test since the 2008 election.

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A recent Washington Post survey estimated the black turnout in Virginia’s governor’s race at 12 percent, which would be about a 40 percent drop from last year’s general election. Other polling has shown both its and New Jersey’s black population unmoved about the off-year election.

The question at this point isn’t so much whether black voters will turn out at 2008 levels, but how big the drop will be — and then, whether it carries into the 2010 midterms.

Tom Jensen, a spokesman for the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, has been among the most outspoken. He said the high number of Democrats with districts that are significantly black means such a turnout shift could be disastrous for Democrats.

“If what looks like is going to happen in Virginia plays out on a national level, I do think Democrats will lose the House,” Jensen said.

“We really don’t find that many people who voted Democratic in 2008 are switching sides; they’re just becoming complacent,” he added. “And that’s particularly true with black Democrats, which is the party’s most dependable voter bloc.”

Virginia is about 20 percent black, and New Jersey is about 14 percent black. Both percentages are higher than the 12 percent national average. And in both states, polling shows the race could come down to the final days.

David Bositis, an expert on black turnout at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said not too much should be read into the results on Nov. 3, because the two campaigns are unique. While Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds has virtually no connection to the black community, he said, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has made plenty of inroads with African-Americans over the years.

Whatever the case, he said, the stretch run in both states is sure to feature plenty of black outreach, and then the party will have to confront the problem going forward.

“It’s going to be a stretch to say that what happens in Virginia will, in any way, be telling about next year,” he said. “But it definitely is something they are going to be concerned about in terms of 2010.”

While others might view the state as a foreign political universe, though, the commonwealth features at least two Democratic freshmen who could train a keen eye on the turnout models in the governor’s race.

Reps. Tom Perriello and Glenn Nye both rode into Washington in districts that are nearly one-quarter black. Nye won by 5 percent, while Perriello won by fewer than 1,000 votes.

The third freshman Democrat in the state’s delegation, Rep. Gerry Connolly has a 10 percent African-American district. He said he, Nye and Perriello will be watching the results, but that it’s a yearly exercise in the state to re-evaluate the electorate.

He noted that not only are black voters expected to drop significantly, but so is another key Democratic voter group: young adults.

“That’s a huge change in the composition of the electorate. That’s not easily made up on the run,” Connolly said. “So, yeah, we’re watching the electorate, but this is not a new phenomenon in Virginia.”

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Many other freshman Democrats come from districts with black populations similar in size to Nye’s and Perriello’s, including Alabama Reps. Bobby Bright and Parker Griffith, North Carolina Rep. Larry Kissell and Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus. Many of the rest come from districts with about 10 percent black populations, like Connolly’s.

“It’s going to be hard to get African-Americans to vote without Obama, but there’s going to be lower turnout across the board,” said a consultant who works with candidates in the former group.

The limited evidence so far is a little frightening for Democrats. Apart from the voter models in Virginia’s governor’s race, Louisiana Democrats lost two December House races in significantly black districts — including one in majority-black New Orleans. And Georgia Democrats saw Senate nominee Jim Martin lose to Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) by 15 percentage points in a December runoff, after losing by just three points the month before.

All three losses were attributed, in significant part, to drops in black turnout.

Emory University Professor Merle Black said that, much like with Deeds and Corzine, it can depend on how much a candidate has to offer black voters, and that’s what Democrats will have to work on.

“There were efforts to turn them out [in the Senate runoff], but the main driving force is whether voters think candidates are going to do something for them,” Black said. “The difference between Obama and Martin was a chasm. The real election was in November.”