Why the black turnout factor may be overrated
Mon May 26, 2008 10:57 pm

David Hill, the Houston-based Republican political consultant, wrote a column earlier this month for The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress, in which he questioned whether the black vote could be the determining factor in electing Barack Obama president. I've edited his remarks below.

* It is a mistake to think that the black turnout is normally lacklustre. In 2004, approximately 87% of registered black voters cast ballots. For white voters (non-Hispanic), the figure was 89%.

* Only 13 percent of all non-voters in 2004 were African-Americans. Even if previous 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. 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. 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.

* The best hope for African-Americans and Democrats lies in the 38 percent of blacks 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, 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.

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