Turning out the Black Vote in 2024

This election cycle, much has been made of the Black community’s fading commitment to the Democratic Party. The concern encompasses everything from waning support for President Biden to disillusionment with the party as an institution. Yet it’s widely understood that Black voters are instrumental to the Democratic coalition, especially in swing states in which Black turnout for Democrats has been key to their wins, including Georgia (GA), Michigan (MI), and Pennsylvania (PA). 

Consider Black turnout in the table below, which shows Black turnout at the national level as well as in the swing states of GA, MI, and PA.1 Even if Biden wins every other state in 2024 that he won in 2020, without the 50 electoral votes awarded for these three states, Biden loses the White House.2 Further, these swing states represent places in which Black voting power is either near or above the percentage of Black people in the national population (approximately 14  percent), such that turning out Black voters can retain these states for Team Blue.3 

In 2016, as the table indicates, Trump narrowly won GA, MI, PA. In 2020, Black turnout increased by 2 percent in MI and PA, respectively, and 8 percent in GA, allowing Biden to flip all three states, paving the way for his win. Currently, Biden is down in all three states, but the proportion of the Black electorate in each state is greater than the deficit the president faces.. Therefore, it’s possible that Biden can hang on and win these crucial swing states, retaining the White House. 

With this as background, but with the Black electorate largely in a state of frustration, how might Democrats persuade Black voters to turn out? 

One approach, championed by party operatives, suggests highlighting the work that the president has done on behalf of the Black community will go a long way toward allaying the disaffection. While nice in theory, nothing in the way of research supports this claim.  

The suggestion that beneficiaries of Biden’s policies will reward him during the 2024 election is associated with what is called policy feedback effects in political science.4 But policy feedback effects are rare. It’s not that beneficiaries don’t appreciate the benefit: They often do. Maximizing the likelihood of achieving feedback effects, however, requires that the benefit be visible and traceable.  It must also be associated with a single, identifiable name: Social Security and the GI Bill come to mind.

Consider the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The first two conditions are present, but the ACA is called different things in different states, preventing it from generating the desired feedback effects.

And even if the Biden administration’s policies that claim to assist the Black community meet the conditions outlined, the feedback effects will be muted by the polarized political climate. In short, they’ll fail to register with voters as meaningful, changing nothing when it comes to Black turnout.

So, what’s the solution?

Black Insights Research sought to discover why Black turnout rebounded in the 2020 election cycle from 2016. Since Obama wasn’t on the ballot, we hypothesized that it was the presence of Donald Trump and his bid for a second term. Of course, he was also on the ballot in 2016 when Black turnout declined. However, after Trump’s four chaotic years in office, we believe the Black community concluded that he posed an existential threat to the race.

To assess our claims, Black Insights Research teamed up with TargetSmart, a market research firm. We conducted focus groups across the country and followed up with a national survey. Each group was stratified by propensity to vote, producing two groups: low- and high-propensity voters. Both groups of voters expressed frustration and disaffection with Biden and the Democratic Party. At the same time, both groups acknowledged that Trump, MAGA, and the GOP threaten the Black community. Using the survey and its embedded experiments, we show that the same threats do not affect high-propensity voters: They’re going to turn out regardless of the threat. But for low-propensity voters, threat —from both Trump and MAGA, and the GOP—tends to move them from apathy to activism. 

The bottom line: If Democrats hope to defeat the GOP and Trump, they must move beyond the narrative that voter turnout will increase by simply communicating to the Black community Biden’s deeds on their behalf. There’s no proof, at least in the academic literature, that this is a valid strategy.

As an alternative, we suggest reminding the Black community about the stakes, should Trump prevail. Among other things, Trump’s presidency increased the prejudice his supporters harbored. The antipathy promoted by Trump’s time in the White House isn’t confined to interracial attitudes.  The rise in hate crimes committed against marginalized groups is something likely abetted by Trump’s brazen bigotry.

Reminders like these, we believe, will promote the level of Black turnout Democrats must secure if Biden hopes to prevail in 2024. 

In the next issue of the BIRN, we discuss our focus groups results, which highlights the sources of disaffection of the Black community toward Biden and the Democratic Party. In the issue that follows, we shift from our focus group to a large, national survey in which we offer a way to work around the disaffection with the Democratic Party, a way that promises to spur Black turnout in 2024.

[1] Here, we focus only on states that swung from red to blue with a significant Black voting age population (>10 percent of registered voters)

[2] Even if Biden were to win every state in 2024 that he won in 2020, if he loses the Electoral College votes from MI, PA, and GA, Biden would lose the White House. More to the point, without wins in these 3 swing states, Biden would not only have to reclaim every state that he won in 2020, but he would also have to win additional red states that haven’t voted for a Democratic Presidential candidate in the past two election cycles.

[3] Although the Black voting-age population in Wisconsin (WI) is only 6 percent, the razor-thin margin of victory for both Trump in 2016 (+0.7) and Biden in 2020 (+1.4), suggests that Black voters are essential to Democrats if they hope to retain the White House. Due to limits on the availability and validity of Black turnout data in WI, however, we chose not to include it in our analysis.

[4] Briefly, policy feedback effects occur when policy reshapes public opinion and political behavior among beneficiaries. For the most part, this is about those who benefit from said policy mobilizing to protect the policy, rewarding those responsible. Applying it to the current situation, Black people, in recognition of how they benefit from Biden’s policies, will turn out to support him in November.

 

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