The Democrats' problem with black voters

African Americans' enthusiasm about voting takes a sharp drop, and that could be big come 2010

Published December 3, 2009 9:31PM (EST)

The African American vote is vital to the Democratic Party. That's a truism of American politics, has been for some time now, but it was especially true in 2008, though not just in the way people usually think. The black voters who came out in droves in order to elect Barack Obama president didn't just vote for him; they gave Democrats in down-ticket races a major boost as well.

In 2008, Democrats picked up a net of 21 seats in the House of Representatives. Of those, 10 were in districts with a disproportionately high African American population, where the increased black turnout almost certainly played a role in flipping the seat. Those 10 were also all on a list I compiled for an October 2008 article I wrote previewing the role black voters could play in down-ticket races shortly thereafter; only three of the districts that were on my list didn't switch from Republican to Democrat. The effect didn't end with the House, either --in one key race, for example, black voters helped Democrat Kay Hagan knock off now-former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole.

But next year, Obama's name won't be on the ballot. That will almost certainly mean a drop in black voter turnout back to more normal levels, at the very least. And Democrats are expecting that, or at least they should be. A new poll seems to indicate that things could be much worse than that, however.'s Nate Silver noticed a number in a recent DailyKos/Research 2000 poll that should give Congressional Democrats some sleepless nights: While 68 percent of whites said they definitely or probably will vote in 2010, only 33 percent of blacks said the same thing.

There's always a racial gap in turnout rates, but it's never been that big, or even close to it -- in fact, Silver says, the biggest in the past 30 years was 13 percentage points. That was in 1994, and Democrats remember very well what happened then.

There's reason to be skeptical about the result, if only because it's so wildly different from the norm, and there's plenty of time left before Election Day. But if those numbers hold, it could be a very bad year for Democrats. That would be true not just in the House but in the Senate as well -- low black turnout could doom vulnerable Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, and it could hurt other Democrats who are facing legitimate races like Sens. Chris Dodd, Kirsten Gillibrand and Arlen Specter.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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