The special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District is the first major test of the Democratic resistance to President Trump. In one sense, the results of the first round in April were promising for the party. Thanks to an impressive Democratic turnout, Jon Ossoff, the Democrat who advanced to this month’s runoff, almost cracked 50 percent of the vote in a district that’s nearly 10 percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole.1
The result, moreover, was a reversal of some turnout trends we saw in 2016, when President Trump outperformed the polls on the back of higher turnout in Republican-leaning areas. And if the runoff election on June 20 features a similar electorate, the race will be too close to call.
But the Georgia 6 April primary was a continuation of some 2016 turnout trends too — trends that should worry Democrats. In 2016, turnout among whites was up across the country, and in highly educated areas like the 6th District in the suburbs of Atlanta. This redounded to Democrats’ advantage. At the same time, black turnout was down precipitously, from 66 percent in 2012 to 59 percent in 2016. This black-white turnout gap continued in the first round of Georgia’s special election, where the Democrats got impressive turnout levels from all races and ethnicities — except African-Americans.
Lower black turnout in 2016 might be explained as a reversion to the mean after that group’s historic turnout for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. It’s possible that Clinton could never inspire black turnout the way the first African-American president could. But even if this shift is more of a return to the old status quo, Democrats will still have to grapple with these turnout levels going forward, and there are powerful lessons we can learn from the party’s failure to raise or maintain previous black turnout levels in 2016. Painting Trump as a bigot did not motivate more African-Americans to vote, in 2016 or in the Georgia 6th. Hope and shared identity seem to be much more effective turnout motivators than fear.
Elections are decided by two chief factors: Who turns out and which candidate they vote for. It’s been pointed out that turnout alone did not decide the 2016 election — and that the key factor in Trump’s success with groups like the white working class was not that he got way more of them to the polls than Mitt Romney did, but simply that he won a much higher share of their votes.
But if there was one area where Democratic turnout was undeniably weaker in 2016 than 2012, it was among African-Americans — and this is borne out in my own analysis of the 2016 voter files, which consisted of comparing actual 2016 turnout to pre-election modeled turnout expectations. While most of the conversation around electoral demographics has focused on the growing Latino population, African-Americans are still the most electorally influential nonwhite group because they make up a larger share of the voting population both in the U.S. overall and in swing states in particular. And for Democrats, the influence of black voters is further amplified because, as a group, they vote for Democratic candidates by such large margins. Clinton won about 66 percent of Latino voters, compared to Trump’s 28 percent; she won African-American voters 89 percent to 8 percent. Turnout among Latino voters is rising, and this is good news for Democrats, especially as African-American turnout has fallen. But the difference in the margins by which these two groups lean Democratic means Democrats need to work twice as hard to net the same number of votes from the Latino community as they could from the African-American community.
We saw last year how lower engagement among African-American voters is a serious problem for the Democrats, as black turnout declined nearly uniformly across all the swing states in 2016:
|DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ACTUAL AND EXPECTED TURNOUT|
Turnout did not decline equally among all parts of the African-American electorate. The dropoff was particularly steep among men, and especially young men. Across the swing states for which we have voter files, turnout among black men aged 18-29 was 22 percent lower than 2012 levels, while it rose 7 percent among white men in the same age group. Age aside, we also see steeper differences in turnout rates along gender lines among African-Americans than any other racial group.
|DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ACTUAL AND EXPECTED TURNOUT|
The post-Obama Democratic Party may be less able to count on black voters turning out at Obama-era levels, forcing it to become more reliant on whites with a college degree, Hispanics and Asians.
Indeed, on April 18th in Georgia, black voters did not necessarily join their white counterparts in a surge of Democratic enthusiasm against Trump. Compared to turnout levels in the 2014 midterms — which, like this special election, was an off-year election where Democratic enthusiasm was low and Obama was not on the ballot — black Democratic turnout in Georgia’s 6th lagged around 10 points behind that of white Democrats, though black voters still turned out at a higher rate than Republicans as a whole did.
As in 2016, the Democratic coalition in the Georgia special election relied somewhat less on African-American votes, gaining numbers instead through higher-than-expected turnout from the district’s fast-growing Hispanic and Asian populations. Nonwhite voters make up a smaller share of the 6th District’s electorate than Georgia’s as a whole, but the trends shown below are consistent with ones we saw in many states in a post-2016 review of voter turnout.
|DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ACTUAL AND MODELED MIDTERM TURNOUT|
Democrats may partially solve their midterm turnout problem before they repair the cracks in their Electoral College strategy. In 2018, Democrats may be able to win over and turn out the kinds of white voters who showed up for them in Georgia’s 6th — educated, left-leaning, but usually unlikely to vote in midterms — even as “the resistance” fails to appeal to the African-American community that has been a major element of Democrats’ traditional base. But that strategy is more limited in 2020, when marginal voters are concentrated in African-American and other nonwhite communities, and no candidate has shown an Obama-like ability to reach them.