Alarm bells went off Tuesday about the Clinton’s campaign’s chances in Florida after multiple outlets — notably Politico — reported that Clinton has a “black voter problem” in one of the biggest swing states of the election.
That Hillary Clinton may not have the same black voter turnout as President Barack Obama — our first African-American president — did in 2008 and 2012 is not particularly surprising.
But it’s true that recent early voting reports from Florida do indicate a decrease in black voter early voting turnout. As a result, that may make the swing state a more attainable get for Republican nominee Donald Trump.
“In 2008 and 2012 black voter turnout rose enough to erase the gap in participation between blacks and whites. The early vote data suggest that black turnout might recede somewhat in 2016 while Latino turnout surges,” early voting expert Barry Burden, a political scientist with the University of Wisconsin Madison, said.
In-person early voting turnout among African Americans in Florida is behind 2012 levels at this point in the cycle. Eight days before Election Day, African Americans make up 15 percent of in-person early voting in Florida. At this point in 2012, black voters made up 25 percent of the early voting contingent, according to analysis from University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith. In-person early voting among Latinos and white voters has increased this year overall.
These are mixed signals for the Clinton campaign: An increase in Latino voters is a good sign — especially for a contingent of voters with historically low turnout — and a testament to Clinton’s get out the vote efforts. But lower early voting turnout among black voters “are a point of concern” for Democrats in Florida, according to Paul Gronke, a political scientist with Reed College and the director of the Early Voting Information Center.
It’s important to note that it’s difficult to compare 2016 early voting numbers in Florida to 2012 statistics, as voting laws have changed between election cycles; there are more in-person early voting days in Florida this year than in 2012. However, Burden said that only “makes the trends even more striking.”
We have seen a shift in early voting demographics over the years
Put simply: Early voters are decided voters, Gronke told me when early voting started in September. "Individuals who cast an early ballot make up their minds early," he says.
There has been a shift in early voting demographics in the past two decades. "Prior to 2008, these ‘decided’ early voters matched demographic patterns that are well-established in American politics," Gronke said; they were older, educated, wealthier, ideological, and highly partisan. And for the most part, particularly with mail-in voters, these early voters mostly leaned Republican, which can also be attributed to a strong GOP push for mail-in absentee voting in the 1990s and 2000s. Meanwhile, in-person early voters tend to lean more toward Democrats.
Barack Obama’s presidential campaign made a big stride with Democratic in-person early voting in 2008, targeting areas with higher Democratic voter potential — areas that also had higher populations of African-American voters. Black churches used Sunday services to push people to the polls in what they called "souls to the polls" initiatives, University of Wisconsin’s Burden recalls.
In 2012, more restrictive early voting laws also served as a mobilization tool to get out the vote, Gronke notes. “It ended up being nearly impossible to extract out the impact of the laws from the impact of the campaign,” he said.
For the most part, 2016 remains consistent with these trends. Notably, Democrats and the Clinton campaign have focused this year’s efforts on mail-in voting. They have had tangible results in states like Florida, where voter registration between Democrats and Republicans has evened out. While “compared to in-person early voting, absentee voting patterns in Florida do not deviate as much from 2012,” as Burden notes, Republicans don’t lead Democrats with as wide a margin in absentee voting this year. And, according to the Clinton campaign, more African Americans requested mail ballots in this election than ever before.
African-American voters haven’t always been typically billed as early voters. But, Gronke notes, in the past two elections black Americans have fit the behavioral profile of a "decided voter."
"There was very little that would change the minds of many African Americans, particularly in 2008, when they had the first opportunity ever to cast a ballot for an African-American presidential candidate," Gronke said. "Why wait?"
Clinton may not have the same pull this year. But it’s still early to tell, and as University of Florida early voting expert Michael McDonald wrote for the Huffington Post Sunday, Democrats still have a lot of unreturned ballots in their hands:
Second, there are 71,700 more Democrats than Republicans who have requested mail ballots but have not returned them. While Democrats typically have a problem with unreturned mail ballots, my sense is given this lopsided number that at some point Democrats will start achieving at least daily parity in the returned mail ballots.
There are limitations to reading the early voting tea leaves.
It’s important to remember — and a general scan of contradicting headlines on early voting from the New York Times to Fox News will show you — that it’s still early to say definitively that these early voting numbers indicate final results:
“It is quite difficult to discern what the election results will be from early voting numbers,” Burden said. “The patterns do not tell a coherent national story. … Ballots are coming in at different rates for the parties in each state. The messages appear to differ from one state to the next.”
And as McDonald warns in his weekly update on the early voting numbers for Huffington Post: “These are still early hints of the direction of the election. There is still much time left in the election, and these numbers can be affected by how election officials run the election, campaign strategies to mobilize voters, and voters’ behaviors.”
There are a lot of limitations: States reporting early voting totals don’t always include all counties; some states, like North Carolina, require party registration, while others, like Wisconsin, don’t; and numbers derived from party registrations are fallible. These distinctions can explain some of the early results.
University of Denver political scientist Seth Masket crunched the numbers for FiveThirtyEight on how well early voting numbers predicted the final tally in past elections. He simply concluded, “The relationship is positive, but it’s pretty noisy. In other words, knowing how a party is doing in early voting doesn’t tell you much about how it will do once all the votes are counted.” In fact, he found that looking at early voting numbers in 2012 would give you “wildly misleading” results:
Democrats maintained substantial leads among early voters in North Carolina, Louisiana and West Virginia, and were trailing by a relatively narrow margin in Oklahoma, but still lost those states when all the votes were counted. Republicans won early voters in Pennsylvania and Colorado but lost the final tallies there. Maryland was a safely Democratic state in 2012, but the 75 percent of the early vote that went the Democrats’ way was a far cry from the 63 percent of the total vote they won once voting was finished.
But early voting numbers are confirming early polling, and polling is indicating that Clinton is winning overall — and is in a dead heat against Trump in Florida.
If black voters don’t turn out, it could make Florida a reachable goal for Trump.