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VA Gov a Test Case for the “Martin Effect”?

Last December, with Republicans still licking fresh wounds, Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss won a runoff election against Democrat Jim Martin. Chambliss’ 15-point victory margin in the runoff was far greater than his 3-point margin in the initial contest a month earlier, in which Martin, despite finishing second, was able to keep Chambliss under the state-mandated 50 percent threshold, triggering the runoff.

What accounted for Martin’s disparate performances? Race was certainly a key factor, as African American turnout dropped even more precipitously than the statewide voter dropoff, which fell by almost half. Though the lack of exit polling data makes it impossible to know for sure how much the black voter turnout rates at both moments affected Martin’s performance in each election, as Nate pointed out in December, there’s almost no doubt that Barack Obama’s presence on the ballot helped Martin in November and, thus, his absence pretty much doomed Martin in December.

From the New York Times story the day after the runoff:

“For a lot of African-American voters, the real election was last month,” said Merle Black, an expert in Southern politics at Emory University. “The importance of electing the first African-American president in history generated enormous enthusiasm. Everything else was anticlimactic.”

A little more than two million people voted in the runoff, compared with 3.7 million on Nov. 4. In heavily black Clayton County, just south of Atlanta, Mr. Martin’s vote was less than half what it was in the earlier election. Only 9.2 percent of registered Georgians cast early votes in the runoff, compared with 36 percent in the general election.

Tomorrow’s Virginia Democratic primary provides another opportunity to test the racial turnout implications of Obama’s candidacy. It is not a perfect analog to the Georgia senate race, for the obvious reason that Georgia was a two-way general election runoff between a Democrat and Republican, not a party primary fought among three Democrats. But as the Washington Post reports today, what’s uncertain for all three of those Democratic contenders–Craigh Deeds, Terry McAuliffe, Brian Moran–is not only whom African Americans will support, but what the overall turnout among black voters will be.

Enthusiasm among black voters for Barack Obama last fall helped him become the first Democrat since the 1960s to carry Virginia in a presidential election, but it is unclear whether any of the Democrats who hope to succeed Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has succeeded in tapping that energy.

In a race without a clear front-runner, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and former state delegate Brian Moran (Alexandria) have touted endorsements from civil rights leaders and black newspapers, mailed thousands of fliers and competed on radio for support in areas that are not a natural base for any of the three.

They have crafted messages targeting black voters — who accounted for an estimated 30 percent of the Democratic primary vote in 2008 — with promises to reduce childhood obesity, spur economic renewal in the urban areas of Richmond and Norfolk and restore voting rights to nonviolent felons. All three have pledged to crack down on predatory payday lenders, an issue McAuliffe elevated by promising to drive such businesses out of the state.

If Barack Obama has changed black politics–and even if he has done so only in symbolic ways, is there any doubt he has?–the interesting post-2008 electoral questions are whether and to what degree African Americans will turn out in non-presidential contests, particularly those without a black candidate in (presumably, though not necessarily) Democratic primaries and/or general election contests. Tomorrow’s result should provide one of the first pieces to this racial turnout puzzle.

Black voter share of the VA Democratic primary electorate should be higher than it was four years ago, if for no other reason than the greater level of attention paid and amount of resources invested by the three contenders in African American parts of the state. (Besides, Tim Kaine’s nomination was never in doubt in 2005.) What will be harder to tease out is whether an increase is a byproduct of African American voters newly-engaged by the Obama effect, or simply a result of all that attention and resources. But if black share of the primary electorate is only slightly higher than four years ago, or the same or lower, Jim Martin may be chuckling–and wincing–tomorrow night.