Blacks Could Preserve a Progressive Majority

Sam Fulwood III examines the importance of African Americans in key congressional races.

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With only two weeks until critical midterm elections, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama muster support for Democratic candidates during a rally Sunday at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
With only two weeks until critical midterm elections, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama muster support for Democratic candidates during a rally Sunday at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The conventional, pre-midterm election scenarios uniformly anticipate a bloodbath for progressive candidates in U.S. House and Senate contests, but one lonely voice cries out in the pundit wilderness, arguing the Democrats’ plight is neither preordained nor necessarily dire.

David A. Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has made a nearly two-decade career at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank studying black voter participation and habits. He recently published an analysis of black voters and the upcoming midterm elections that offers a glimmer of hope for Democrats and suggests some highly favorable longer-term trends regardless of the outcome in next month’s congressional races.

At a news conference to unveil his study “In Anticipation of November 2: Black Voters and Candidates and the 2010 Midterm Elections,” Bositis acknowledged that Democrats are likely to lose seats in both legislative chambers. “There’s no getting around it,” he told a group of reporters gathered in the Joint Center’s boardroom. “Given the bad state of the economy, voters will be judging candidates on the performance of the economy. It’s going to be a bad year for the Democrats.”

But how bad will it be?

“Well, that depends on the Democrats’ base,” Bositis said. “African-American voters are the most loyal part of the Democrats’ base. If they turnout in large numbers, it will be difficult for either house to switch control. At this point, we have no clue as to whether the black vote will show up or stay home.”

Rarely do media pundits and prognosticators track black voters. Most national polls grossly undersample minority voters so predictions based on how blacks or other minority voters might behave are nonexistent or, at best, unreliable. Additionally, because black Americans tend to be clustered in the South and in urban centers, black voters aren’t nationally distributed. That means the black vote is concentrated in less than half of the states and in about a quarter of the U.S. congressional districts.

To add yet another dollop of complexity to making race-based voting predictions, black voters tend to cast their ballots at lower rates than white voters—especially in midterm elections when turnout is lower across the board.

But that doesn’t mean black voters are being totally overlooked. Indeed, savvy operatives are courting black voters in the places where Democrats believe they can make a difference. President Obama, for example, recently mounted a campaign directed at black voters, appearing on black radio and making speeches in urban settings such as downtown Cleveland.

“These people drove the car into the ditch,” the president said, referring to his Republican critics, on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show,” a syndicated radio program with a large black audience. “And I’ve been down in that ditch, putting on my boots and pushin’ and shovin’ and breakin’ a sweat, and these guys have been standing on the sidelines. We finally get the car out of the ditch, back on level ground and moving on the road, and now they want the keys.”

Still, campaign activity geared to turning out black voters tends to be ignored by mainstream media and its echo-chamber columnists, most of whom are more likely to concentrate on tracking those elusive independent voters, many of whom are white voters. The media’s failure to report on black voters, however, sometimes leads to surprising results.

Bositis noted that twice in recent history, black voters turned out in unexpectedly heavy measure during midterm elections. He noted that black voters responded in 1986 to a call by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who registered large numbers of blacks for his presidential run two years earlier. In that case, black voters helped Democrats recapture the Senate.

Then in 1998, black voter turnout swelled during a midterm election in a strong show of support for President Bill Clinton, who was popular with black voters and was under withering attack by congressional Republicans. Black voters were decisive in the Democrats gaining five seats in the House that year. Even though Republicans retained control of the House, they had expected to do much better. The surprising setback forced Speaker Newt Gingrich to resign.

In the 2006 midterm, Democrats gained a 31-seat advantage to recapture control of the House. But the competitive races weren’t in districts with a large African-American voting base, so black turnout wasn’t as remarkable or decisive as it had been in 1986 or 1998, Bositis said.

So what’s this mean for 2010?

“Intriguingly, there were 12 years between the two previous displays of black voting power in midterm elections, and 2010 is 12 years since the last instance,” Bositis wrote in his analysis. Digging a bit deeper, there are even more striking similarities between then and now:

  • The most competitive elections are geographically situated where black voters are most concentrated, as was the case in 1986 and 1998. There are 20 House races where black voters could potentially decide the outcome, including 15 congressional districts in the South. If Democrats retain half of those seats it would be difficult for the GOP to gain the 40 seats needed to regain the majority.
  • President Obama is extremely popular with black voters and is under attack from Republican and Tea Party activists. Bositis’s analysis shows that Obama, the first black American elected president, is even more popular in 2010 with black voters (about 80 percent job approval and 95 percent favorable rating) than President Clinton was in 1998 (61 percent job approval and 89 percent favorable rating).
  • Black voters are well-positioned to vote because the 2008 presidential election was the first in which black turnout exceeded white turnout, contributing to Obama’s historic victory. Plus, the large number of competitive races in districts with large black populations should lead to increased efforts by Democrats to get-out-the-vote strategies targeted at black voters.

Of course, all this remains political theory until Election Day. But for all the teeth gnashing and gloomy predictions, Bositis’s work ought to remind progressive leaders and voters not to lose hope. After all has been said and done, it might be demonstrated that black voters saved the day for Democrats once again.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sam Fulwood III

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)