A piece of conventional wisdom was debunked today by a new report on the 2010 midterm elections released by the Joint Center for Political Studies. One bottom-line conclusion of this report: It was not the failure of black voters to show up at the polls that caused Democrats to lose its majority in the House of Representatives. In fact, African-American voters formed the one sector of the Democratic coalition that remained stalwart as other groups either defected to the Republicans or stayed home.
As a group, African-American voters showed more willingness to be patient with President Obama and the Democrats, even though they have on average lost more during the economic downturn than white voters. They are also likely as a group to fall behind further as the economy moves toward recovery without specific policies designed to address continuing race-based economic disparities.
While the percentage of the vote that was African-American in the 2010 midterms dropped to 10 percent from 13 percent in 2008, that percentage was actually slightly higher than the 2006 midterms, according to the report. The report notes that “presidential and midterm elections are not comparable, and further, 2008 was the first time an African American was a major party nominee for president. Thus, on balance, there is no evidence of a decline in the black vote nationally, but rather, black turnout appears to have increased slightly from the previous midterms.”
David A. Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center, said at a briefing to discuss the poll results that black voter turnout was up significantly over 2006 in a number of states, including Illinois, Ohio, California, Delaware, Ohio, Texas and New York. And in nearly all of these areas Republicans did not get a larger share of the black vote than they had in 2006. (The national average was 9 percent.)
On the other hand, “in this election the white vote broke very very strongly for Republican candidates,” Bositis said, with a number of Democratic candidates getting well under 40 percent of the white vote: Illinois Senate Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias received just 31 percent of the white vote in his race against Rep. Mark Kirk, Ohio Demoractic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland received 38 percent of the white vote; Missouri Senate candidate Robin Carnahan got less than one-third of the white vote.
In the House, Democrats lost 16 seats in districts where African Americans are at least 10 percent of the voting-age population, and only picked up two in this category from the Republicans.
Having established the fact that African Americans continue to be a reliable voting bloc for the Democratic Party, the discussion at the forum quickly turned to what African Americans can and should expect in return for their continued loyalty. Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women’s Forum, phrased the question this way: “Is there really anyone at the national or state level that cares about what we do at the policy level that affects African Americans? Or have we gotten to the juncture where we only care about Hispanics, women or young voters – and if black voters happen to fall into one of those categories, then fine.”
Some of those policy questions were raised in a report issued by Demos, “Economic Insecurity: The Experience of the African-American and Latino Middle Classes.” In addition to the fact that unemployment among African-Americans, now at 15.7 percent, is nearly twice that of whites:
- Only 2 percent of African-American middle-class families have enough net financial assets to meet three-quarters of their living expenses for nine months if their source of income disappeared. The national average is 13 percent.
- 68 percent of African-American families live paycheck-to-paycheck, with no net financial assets whatsoever.
- In 34 percent of African-American families, the primary wage-earner has no more than a high-school education. The national average is 27 percent.
- 74 percent of African-American families spend more than 20 percent of their after-tax income on housing. The national average is 60 percent. Thirty-one percent spend more than 30 percent of their after-tax income on housing, meeting the federal definition of “housing-burdened.”
In writing about the racial wealth gap last year, Jose A. Garcia of Demos quoted a statement Melvin Oliver, dean of social sciences at the University of California at Santa Barbara, that framed the issue well:
“For every dollar of net worth owned by the median white family, the median African-American family had only a dime, and the Latino family 12 cents. This racial wealth gap is growing and it impacts our democracy — and our economy. Without wealth, people of color aren’t able to participate in reinvigorating the American economy.”
The solutions to these issues happen to be the policies that will also address the concerns of white voters who made clear their dissatisfaction with the state of the economy. At the top of the list: Producing jobs that will support middle-class families. “The issue is jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Christian Dorsey, director of external and governmental affairs at the Economic Policy Institute. “I know people are sick of hearing about it, but it’s so simple it’s true.”
Dorsey said that President Obama and the remaining Democrats in Congress need to stand forthrightly on the need for the federal government to take proactive steps to stimulate the economy in ways that produce jobs for middle-class workers, and to be unafraid to say that “the idea that a tax break for a bunch of millionaires is going to help provide a job for your unemployed relative is a bunch of hooey.”
The Republican agenda—repeal of the health-care reform law, cuts in federal spending and in the public-sector hiring that has been a major source of stable work for African Americans, ending the stimulus spending that has helped revitalize some urban areas, shutting down the work Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac has done to help close the black-white homeownership gap—is clearly one that disregards the needs of people of color, Dorsey said.
Are the Democrats up to the challenge of crafting an agenda that builds the 21st-century version of the “rainbow coalition” that the Rev. Jesse Jackson envisioned in his 1984 election and which Barack Obama alluded to as a presidential candidate two years ago? If the Democrats want to regain the trust of white voters and maintain the trust of black voters, they must, Dorsey said. Otherwise, Democrats risk losing their most loyal supporters. “If we take for granted the African-American vote” without moving forward, at least rhetorically, on the key economic issues they are concerned about, “we run the real risk of seeing a real enthusiasm gap in 2012.”