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The simple reason black early voting is down, and why it shouldn’t worry Democrats too much

Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton Campaigns In Nevada And Arizona Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Less than a week before the election, alarm bells went off over Hillary Clinton’s perceived “black voter problem.”

A new poll conducted by the African American Research Collaborative, which polled 1,200 African-American registered voters representative of the national black voting population — excluding low-propensity voters and focusing on Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Georgia — found that black voters are, in fact, less enthusiastic about voting in the presidential election. Only 20 percent of black voters say they are more excited to vote in 2016 than they were in 2012, compared with 54 percent who said they were more enthusiastic about voting in 2012.

On some level, this confirms anxiety among Democrats over minority voters, prompted by recent early voting reports in Florida indicating a decrease in black early voter turnout — a trend that could make the swing state more attainable for Republican nominee Donald Trump.

But there is an important distinction here: While enthusiasm is down, the “perceived importance” of voting for the president is higher this year than it was in 2012 — 56 percent of black voters said it was more important to vote in 2016, compared with only 8 percent who said 2012 was more important. In other words, black voters are still committed to casting their ballots this cycle.

That Hillary Clinton may not have the same black early voter turnout as President Barack Obama, our first African-American president, did in 2008 and 2012 is not particularly surprising. “In 2008 and 2012, black voter turnout rose enough to erase the gap in participation between blacks and whites,” early voting expert Barry Burden, a political scientist with the University of Wisconsin Madison, said.

Early voting is a good measure of enthusiasm — and enthusiasm is down among black voters. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for the Clinton camp.

As University of Florida early voting expert Daniel Smith pointed out, black early voting in Florida jumped a whole point after the Obamas campaigned for Clinton in the state this week, confirming the AARC findings that Michelle Obama and Barack Obama are the most effective political messengers among black voters.

All this goes to show that it’s important to remember early voting is not a strong indicator of Election Day results, but is a good representation of enthusiasm.

Early voting is a good measure of enthusiasm

Early voting is usually a good measure of enthusiasm; lots of early voters means lots of decided voters.

And while there doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for either candidate this year, there is some speculation that people voting against the opposing candidate rather than affirmatively voting for their candidate might bring people to the polls.

When the early voting periods were about to open, University of Florida early voting expert Michael McDonald told CNBC he was watching the Hispanic and rural white vote. "There is speculation that Trump's rhetoric could entice Hispanics to vote against him, and there is some evidence in polls that Hispanic voting enthusiasm is running higher than normal," he told CNBC.

His prediction has come to fruition, with record-breaking numbers of Latino voters this year. The same theory can be applied with other demographics of voters, Paul Gronke, a professor of political science at Reed College, said.

"Trump continues to make statements that alienate African-American voters, and he struggles to get beyond 2 percent in some state polls. Under that circumstance, and faced with a well-oiled Democratic [get-out-the-vote] machine, why would African-American voters wait?" Gronke told me in September, noting that Trump also doesn’t seem to have much of an early voter ballot-chasing operation.

According to the AARC poll, black voters do recognize the stakes of the election, and Trump’s dog-whistling to white nationalist voters has resonated negatively among African-American voters.

"All of this might lead to an early electorate that is even more Democratic and more diverse than in the Obama elections — but all of this is contingent on all kinds of assumptions," Gronke said.

Minority voters have become an important demographic for early voting

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 said.

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 billed as typically 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’s 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 — as 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.

If black voters don’t turn out, it could be a point of concern for the Clinton campaign, but it’s important to recognize that black voters not turning out early does not necessarily mean they will not turn out at all.