Obama and turnout by black voters

A lot of experts are starting to anticipate a sharp rise in voter turnout among African-Americans this November, fueled by pride in Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) candidacy. The specter of this surge is frightening a lot of incumbent Republican officeholders who think they will be drowned in a rising tide of African-American voters.

This panic over impending black, mostly Democrat, turnout may not be entirely justified.

First, this fear is often based on the incorrect assumption that black turnout is normally lackluster. The hard numbers contradict this supposition. According to the Census Bureau’s post-election study, “Voting and Registration in the Election of 2004,” approximately 87 percent of registered blacks cast a ballot that year. The parallel number for non-Hispanic white voters was just 89 percent, so the chasm between white and black turnout among registered voters is not as wide as most Republicans may assume.

Looking at these percentages from another perspective, only 13 percent of all non-voters in 2004 were African-Americans. Even if non-voting blacks came out this election in numbers twice that of every other group of non-voters, it would not turn the election upside-down. There is a ceiling effect on how influential a surge in black turnout can be because of African-Americans’ comparatively small share of non-voters.

The development that would make black turnout more significant would be a surge in registration of African-Americans. This is a realm where the black population still lags in a meaningful way. According to the Census survey, only 69 percent of African-Americans are registered. While this compares very favorably to registration rates of other ethnic and racial minorities (52 percent of Asians and 58 percent of Hispanics are registered, according to the Census Bureau), it significantly trails the 75 percent rate of registration among non-Hispanic whites.

Because of non-registration, the electoral participation of all black adults is 60 percent, trailing whites by seven percentage points. If blacks closed that gap completely, it would bring 1.7 million additional African-American voters to the polls this fall. Scattered out across 50 states and 435 congressional elections, I’m not sure how much that changes things. Mostly, I suspect, it would just plump the numbers for Congressional Black Caucus incumbents in safe Democratic seats. Whether it would change the color of red states to purple seems a more dubious proposition.

It’s also doubtful that Obama’s presence on the ticket would singularly spur black voter registration. Blacks aren’t balking at registering because they are overtly alienated from the white-dominated system. Only 4 percent of unregistered African-Americans told Census interviewers that they weren’t registered in 2004 because “my vote won’t make a difference.” Far more unregistered blacks mentioned technical reasons. (Ten percent said they “aren’t eligible”; 7 percent cited “a permanent illness or disability”; 3 percent stated that they didn’t meet residency requirements.) The best hope for African-Americans and Democrats lies in the 38 percent that just flat-out said they are “not interested or involved” in politics. Aren’t these the voters Obama will ignite? Perhaps, but non-participation is such a deeply ingrained habit for many blacks and whites (half of whom say they aren’t interested or involved enough to register) alike that it’s unlikely one candidacy, no matter how charismatic and symbolically rich, will disrupt persistent apathy.

After 2000, black voters in states like Florida were viscerally angry that they had been “disenfranchised” and that the election had been “stolen” by the Republicans. I remember attending political forums that predicted blacks and other core Democrats would rise up in 2004 and get revenge. Revenge and resentment, two strong negative emotions stoked by 2000, should have motivated more black participation in 2004. But it didn’t change much. If revenge didn’t ignite black voters in 2004, I am skeptical that hope and opportunity will do so this year.
 
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.