printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Election 2012: The African American Vote

Dr. Lorenzo Morris, Professor of Political Science, Howard University
Washington, DC
May 4, 2012

1:00 P.M., EST

NOTE: The opinions expressed by non-governmental speakers are solely their own and not a reflection of U.S. Government policy. Their presence at the Foreign Press Center does not constitute an official endorsement of these views.


MS. ROBINSON: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today we have Dr. Lorenzo Morris, who is a professor of political science at Howard University. He’s here today to talk to us about the importance of the African American vote in 2012. So without further ado, I will turn it over to Dr. Morris.

MR. MORRIS: Thank you, Doris. Good morning – or afternoon. I’m here to try to answer questions, as she indicated, about the African American vote in the coming election, and in the process or in the context perhaps say a word or two more generally about American voting.

I think, as a way of trying to facilitate the exchange, I think I should make an observation or two. One is that, in large part, we’re here today because the U.S. is fundamentally a plural society, and a very diverse one. And we’re engaged in our quadrennial process of reaffirming the distribution of power in government at both the presidential level and statewide levels. And we’re doing that with a pluralistic orientation, if not a pluralistic kind of polity and politics. And in that context, race in the society makes a real difference. That difference today is probably much less normative and inegalitarian, obviously, than it used to be, but it’s important in terms of political organizing, behavior or voting behavior and leadership behavior, and it is important in terms of ideological differences.

If it were not for these identifiable voting patterns, voting patterns by race, Barack Obama would not be president today. Instead, John McCain or maybe Sarah Palin would be standing for reelection since white voters preferred McCain to Obama, 53 to 47 percent. High black voter turnout in 2008, the highest ever and the highest of any minority group, was at 65 percent, helped to make the difference along with extraordinary increases in Latino voter turnout. But that still only reached 50 percent. Those two minorities and their important distribution in the critical states helped to make a difference.

I think that historical diversity of the U.S. has led to a kind of party politics that goes back over a century that is fundamentally pragmatic and has defined American party politics as constantly seeking and moving to the center. And along with that, an ideological position for African American – and Hispanic voters more recently – that is far – relatively far to the left. And that’s not hard if you compare American politics to European politics, for example. That ideological character is retained to the extent possible by the orientation of the majority of the Democrats or the Democratic Party, but it is increasingly discredited within the Republican Party. Not that they don’t want to win or want some elements of the center, but the affirmation of conservatism is very strong.

In contrast, the Democratic Party has tended either to claim centrist kinds of orientations or to vow to its minority groups and others that are distinctly progressive in their voter orientation so that in the end, we have a – I think we’re, in 2012, on the verge of a fundamental transformation in the way in which parties confront each other, with much more salient ideological foci than have been historically common, making the future of American party politics, especially given the left-leaning predilection of African American and other minority voters, to be one that is going to be much more ideologically salient. So – sort of my overview of everything I can think of, with nothing in particular. (Laughter.)

MS. ROBINSON: Okay. So with that, what we’ll do is we’ll open it up for questions. Before we start, just a reminder, please state your name and your media organization.

QUESTION: Good afternoon. My name is Dagmar Benesova. I’m from World Business Press Online news agency. Well, my question is: As you also mentioned, that in 2008 there was historically the highest black voters turnout in the election. So after the first term of presidency of Barack Obama, what is your opinion after – can we expect the same high turnout of the black voters in the upcoming election? Or maybe it will be even higher or lower because of some unfilled expectations? Thank you very much.

MR. MORRIS: I think that I would be in line with virtually every other analyst in saying that the turnout should be lower at all levels, but I do not expect a significant drop in the minority voter turnout. For one reason, there has been a steady increase in Hispanic voter turnout that is not likely to climb because they’re still at a relatively low level. And that vote is certainly not likely to become more conservative and therefore not likely to become more Republican, giving it a projection of 66 to 70 percent Democratic and a relatively high turnout – well located in terms of critical states that Obama may need.

The same thing for African American voters – it is well-located vote. The enthusiasm, partly around the novelty for all of the voters, of a new black president will have dissipated and he doesn’t have the strong left interest group mobilization. For example, if you look at the way the funding goes in the two campaigns, much of the Obama funding is internal to the Obama campaign or direct alliances. That indicates a breadth of diverse groups. However, he has retained almost unilateral appeal within the black community. And if you look at local elections and state elections, which may be critical and ideologically significant – pick one, the election for senator in Massachusetts – the voters might be additionally mobilized by the – sometimes, as happens, the local variants of the party, and therefore Obama will benefit from more ideological consciousness.


QUESTION: Thank you very much. I have one more additional question related to this. As now, as we can see, President Obama is very tied with Mitt Romney so far. So – and you mentioned that we can expect a little bit lower turnout. So could it be fatal for Barack Obama in the latest decision? Thank you.

MR. MORRIS: Could what be fatal? I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Like the little less voters of --


QUESTION: -- African Americans. Thank you very much.

MR. MORRIS: Okay. Well, one of the simplest ways of looking at this – and every time I say it, it seems like I’m saying something new, but it shouldn’t be – that no Democrat has ever won the white votes since the World War II except for Johnson. So without minority voters, no Democrat is going to get into the White House. None have won since Roosevelt, except for Johnson, who ran against a candidate who was considered ideologically extreme and therefore largely unacceptable.

How – so turnout is significant, but historically – meaning, like, the ’90s with Clinton – turnout has not been that high among black voters. It has just begun to inch up, and it has done so fairly steadily. So if turnout remains at the level in the ’96 election for minorities, it will still be, given the increase in population, and add in the Hispanic vote, which is certainly more Democratic than it used to be, it is not likely to be a problem if minority voter turnout goes down. And it will – but I don’t think it will go down dramatically.

Second, and one of the things that does not seem to be calculated in most of the national polls, is the advantageous distribution of minority voters by state for minority-benefiting candidates, meaning, obviously, the large states like California that have remained Democratic. But in some of the tossup states, like the two famous ones, 2000 election in Florida and the 2004 election in Ohio, those tossup states maintain larger increased minority populations, and their distribution in those states adds to the less – currently seemingly underestimated potential of an Obama campaign. Not that Obama can by any means be secure, but there is less in the policy agenda to suggest any dramatic change between now and November.

MS. ROBINSON: We’ll go – yeah, back here.

QUESTION: Hi. How are you? My name is Xavier Vila with the Spanish public radio. Got two questions: Is there any chance for Mitt Romney to have a decent outcome within the African American vote? And if he does not, does he has any chance to win this election? And the second would be: To what does Barack Obama needs to do as to be able to have the same kind of outcome within the African American community as in ’08?

MR. MORRIS: Well, I think I can answer both of those with a simple example. Remember when Gingrich talked about a colony on the moon? There will be one sooner than Romney getting the black vote or any significant increase. It will almost be a colony before Obama retains his old levels of enthusiastic black voter turnout, which does not mean – if you look at Clinton as an example, he remains at least as popular as Clinton was with the black community. And if you remember, reporters were jokingly referring to Clinton as the black president.

So the mobilization is a critical factor. Romney’s links to the Tea Party, which is considered by many black voters threatening, might help. Negative voting, however, statistically, as far as I know, has never shown itself to be a real mobilizer. In other words, when people don’t like something, it doesn’t rush them to the polls, in spite of the popular images to the contrary. Positive voting does. Now what does he have on the positive voting sides? It’s going to be the standard thing for most voters: jobs. And the appearance in the black community of jobs is important, but he has one other factor which occurs in the media episodically but importantly: the sensibility to criminal justice in the minority community is both – is strong, and that he can benefit from some of the outrage over recent events for which Romney has been able to say very little.

Similarly and indirectly he can benefit within minority communities, given the economics of the female significant households, from the apparent 20 percent dive – differential between Romney and Obama’s appeal to women voters.

MS. ROBINSON: Let’s go to New York first, and then we’ll come back here. New York, go ahead with your question, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hi. I’m Janine Harper. I’m working for Fuji Television. I’m also a proud Howard University graduate, so thank you, Dr. Morris. Can you talk about the new laws involving voter ID and how that will impact the African American vote?

MR. MORRIS: Certainly, one would not attribute the restrictiveness of the new voting laws, which I think go – affect 10 states, and Florida is one of them, in which restrictive demands for identification have been significant. However, it is almost incontrovertible to say that to the extent they are enforced, they would benefit the Republican candidates because they have the most adverse effects or impacts on minority candidates. These are ID laws which require that you have an official state ID when people are not normally accustomed to having them. And the impact is statistically not as impressive as one might think. But if you just think of a number that was shown recently for some state like Florida – and unfortunately, I don’t know exactly – 5,000. Remember Bush won Florida by less than 500 votes. So if you discourage people from voting due to voter IDs, it will have – can have some significant effect, especially in critical states.

There’s one other thing you don’t see in the media comments on voter identification – well, one thing you do which is that there have been more – there is more evidence of alien invasion than voter fraud in terms of effectiveness. But the other thing is that when you discourage voters, it can have a significant long-term impacts. One – and lower-level voter impacts, meaning that people tend to vote in families. If there’s a head of a family that is deprived of voting, then the discussion of the election, which is critical – we call it talking politics – tends to be lower and it has ripple effects, so that the actual deprivation of the voter ID, if it’s a head of household, can be less significant than the overall impact on especially young voters. Young voters in America were celebrated for voting more for Obama, and that meant they went up to 17 percent, which is not dramatic. But so you can easily discourage them. And a voter ID thing which discourages them – even a family member can be significant since we know voter turnout is a socialization process.

But one last point on this – and thank you for the question – is that some people are concerned that the state legislative impacts may be significant because these are very small differentials frequently in state legislative campaigns. And in local campaigns, a few hundred people frequently determine the outcome. And if you discourage some people from voting because they have difficulty retrieving their identification, then it’s a problem.

But I think beyond that, and for many people who are on the ideological left, the idea that you see in most of the world – democratic world, or at least in Europe – that people should be encouraged to vote adds a sense of disenchantment for some about the seemingly unjustified restrictiveness. Obviously, there are cases where people can feel a problem, but there have been no measured cases of any significant impact of voter fraud.


QUESTION: My name is Josefina Ilustre from Malaya Philippine English Daily, and thank you for coming here. It’s a very timely topic. I am interested in knowing about the youth vote. Can you give us an idea on what the young African American voter look like this time around compared to 2008, and also regarding any enthusiasm gap between all voter levels?

MR. MORRIS: Well, it used to be an easier question for me. The younger I was, the easier I could answer it. But now it’s sort of like distant lands, though I am in a university. One of the things that strikes me as you look at voter mobilization, youth oriented, it’s a measurable phenomenon that is much less visible now than it was. But those youth-oriented get out the vote thing – there was even a campaign in 2004 – Vote Or Die! – that went across all of the campuses. Those things are less visible now. The average young voter has tended to be very much like the party with which he or she is associated, though they are disproportionately democratic.

The Tea Party may have made inroads but there’s not a strong ideological voting , but that would be true on the left, too. The voters tend to be more left-leaning and more Democratic but not independently mobilized, so that, unfortunately for, I think, the Democrats, I think that unless something happens, they will have to anticipate a lower turnout for young voters. The one factor that does mobilize them that leads them to the left are things like the Treyvon Martin case. Criminal justice is a significant issue. And ironically, the voter ID things could have, if actually enforced, a negative impact, because that’s the one area where the young people are most disadvantaged. Frequently, their only identification is a college identification, which many states outlaw recently as a part of this initiative for voter identification.

As one legislature said in New Hampshire, perhaps unintentionally: “We don’t want all these college kids using their ID or – to vote, because they’re going to vote Democratic.” And he didn’t mean to make it so partisan, but that is one of the issues that could turn between now and then into a – inversely or unpredictably mobilizing factor. Beyond that, we should expect the youth voting will return to more like 15 percent.

QUESTION: Marcel Calfat with Radio Canada. About a year ago or last summer, the Black Caucus went around the country and was really focusing on jobs, and there were a lot of criticisms towards President Obama. How do African Americans fare today with Obama as President for the last three years? Are they better off, not as well off?

MR. MORRIS: Well, there are any ways of looking at that. I recently did a paper for the Review of Black Political Economy on Obama’s approach to employment, which means I got to look at some of the ideas and issues, not to necessarily resolve any great problem. But it is fair to say that they are at least as well off, if not better off. Now what does that mean? Are they statistically more employed? No. But one of them – the traditions in the African American communities is to have almost – well, have one and three-fourths levels – to have almost twice as much unemployment as the mainstream community.

So that has declined slightly. So if mainstream unemployment is 8.7 percent, then black unemployment is more like 13 or 14 percent, with an increase in youth. But – so there has not been an overwhelming enthusiasm for his employment policies. However, the fact that they exist and that is it a valued part of his policy, whatever the empirical outcomes may be, gives him a distinct advantage over anybody else because the business-centered approaches that he may share with others are seen as much less business-centered among the Democrats than among the Republicans.

And I think part of that is the benefits that are associated with marginal employment, like healthcare and other kinds of social service programs that African American voters associate indirectly with employment needs and benefits. The mortgage resolution problem is another one that links to unemployment or underemployment, so that it’s probably pretty fair to say that he does well on the unemployment issue, given the context, no employment activity on the other side and the fact that minority unemployment is certainly no worse off proportionately than it was in previous campaigns for other presidential candidates.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS. ROBINSON: Right here.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for – I’m Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Indian newspaper. Could you speak a little bit about Republicans and the black – African American community? And as you said in reply in – to a previous question about the likelihood of African Americans voting for Romney is colony on the moon, what about a congressmen like Allen West? Does he have any influence on the community? And people –

MR. MORRIS: I think for --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. MORRIS: Thank you. For Allen West, it would be a colony on Mars. He would have zero. There is no evidence that his vote contained any. The African American vote Democrat is not to me a distinctly a partisan vote. It’s primarily ideological, though party practice and habits make it significant. African Americans voted almost 40 percent Republican in the 1960s before Goldwater. That is to say, at least in the last term of Eisenhower, they voted 39, almost 40 percent, and they retained a 30-plus percent vote right up until Reagan. Reagan was the big conservative draw that killed the Republican vote.

But in many states – I’m from New York, and the liberal black vote – my parents always voted Republican at the local level because they had what was called the Rockefeller Republicans. There was no – and we voted – they voted Democratic at the national level. So where there was a liberal Republican agenda, it had appeal. It was only post-’80s that the agenda tended to become uniformly conservative and lost the black vote.

So when you want to return to get the black vote, you’re going to have to do something with the Tea Party. I don’t care how many people they manage to find to put in front of the camera of the Tea Party gatherings that may be minority; there are very few behind it. There is among – in my university circles, I met one Republican student who has actually said he was going to be working for Romney. I don’t want to say because I don’t know where. And I thought he was a nice young man, but except I noticed he was always alone. You don’t get support and you don’t get support for ideological reasons, and that’s not likely to change.

And if you look at some of the critical policy areas where that might change – obviously immigration would affect Hispanic voters, but if you look at employment policy, Romney tends to emphasize – and I don’t think they’re that radically different on the employment policy, but tends to emphasize a business-centered approach and let’s his language talk about major corporations, so that makes it very difficult for minority black voters to see an employment-centered policy.

He tends not to speak on social issues at all or just say things that are totally out of line with normal centrist, not to mention liberal, voting, such as issues about healthcare that tend to be overwhelmingly favored, if you look at polls, among all voters, including minority voters, some sort of extended healthcare involvement. He tends to want to stay in fighting abroad, and minorities have uniformly been disenchanted by external wars. That goes back a long way, even to wars that people think or thought were popular among Americans.

So that – those are things that would make it difficult, whatever the party label might be, to attract voters. I’m trying to think of what might – some people have suggested social issues, gays – those really don’t carry any great weight. They are not focal points, whatever the conservatism of the communities may be. So –

MS. ROBINSON: Okay. We’ll go back to our office in New York. New York, go ahead with your question, please.

QUESTION: Yes. Hi. My name is Bukola Shonuga. I’m with African VU (ph) Radio and also Global Media Productions. And thank you for this opportunity. I just wanted to say that the leadership in Africa and some parts of the West believe that President Obama has done a great job, especially in reference to foreign policy, I mean, regarding capturing bin Laden and he has brought home some troops from – I mean, from Iraq and also Afghanistan lately.

But there’s a notion in America that America has become unpopular under President Obama. I was just wondering if you could comment on that, why some people would see that he’s made America popular, whereas on the other part of the world people really feel that he’s there is the best that has happened to America lately in terms of the world liking America more and maybe also in terms of – yeah – foreign policy in general. First question.

My second question is that there is no doubt that President Obama has inspired black people around the world as far as being President or even to ever dream of becoming the President of America. How soon do you think we can anticipate another Obama at the White House?

MR. MORRIS: I don’t know which one of those – begin with popularity. I think if you – the approval ratings remain weakly positive for Obama so that in some sense he’s more popular than a lot of other presidents had been at the end of their first term. Is he as popular as one might have expected after 2008? Certainly not. I think that he has not met the left-leaning expectations of any group, minorities or mainstream, for those who are on the political left. They had wanted more progressive – a direct approach, as I say in my paper on employment, to underemployment and unemployment as opposed to an indirect one, but those things would not have been politically viable.

On international affairs, I think that some people may be disappointed that the initiatives engaged in places like the Middle East with a lot of rhetoric – for example, going to Cairo at the early stage of his presidency and giving this talk about American openness – was not balanced with any success in the – on Palestinian issues that people might have hoped for, no positive outcomes in terms of policy resolution. Those things don’t dramatically affect particularly minority voters, but they do affect the political left in terms of assurance.

However, if you look at the overall foreign policy agenda that was visible in this country, the – it looks like a success. The fight against terrorism was the number one issue, or one of the number one issues, in post-2008 period. And that has now, for the first time in voter history, I think, turned into a Democratic issue. When voters are surveyed, they think that he does better. That was almost never the case in previous election campaigns.

Probably on Africa for the American – African American population, there is a general openness. I mean, Bush had an achievement there with the AIDS policy, and there’s a bit of a disappointment with perhaps Sudan, but that remains something of an intellectual interest within the university. Overall, I don’t think you get this disappointment on international affairs because the top rating goes to terrorism, and the fight against terrorism seems to be owned, in terms of popularity, by Obama.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is, sir, Matthias Kolb. I work for German Public Radio and for Sueddeutsche Zeitung. And I would have two questions. One question would be about the veepstake. There were some – I think there was a poll in CNN where Condoleezza Rice was ranked number one as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney. What do you think that might help the Republicans to get some considerable votes from the Afro-American community?

And my second question would be: Today in The New York Times, there was a piece about – I think it was also about Ohio – that race still plays a strong issue for certain groups, that there are some union members who have been Democratic leaning for all time, but they feel a countervote for Obama because he’s black. Do you think that’s your typical emotion or typical sentiment within American society? Thanks.

MR. MORRIS: Are you saying union leaders in Ohio said they can’t vote for Obama because he’s black?

QUESTION: Not the union leaders, but like union members, they were talking about –

MR. MORRIS: They said they couldn’t vote for him because he’s black?

QUESTION: Yeah. That it’s still –

MR. MORRIS: That’s unusual language.

QUESTION: That it still plays an issue. It’s kind of like four years later, race is still an issue for some voters.

MR. MORRIS: Okay. Yeah. That kind of race-specific and negative language is so rare that I don’t think it has that dramatic effect. I mean, if you’re going to be a racist, you usually don’t announce it. So it just means these people are kind of like way out.

But on Ohio generally, Ohio is one of the critical states. Ohio has 18 electoral votes, and it has a significant black population. Did I leave that number somewhere? But it has over 20-some percent. So that is going to be a factor. The employment factor is a critical one there to help determine how the vote will go, but union leadership has to be generally predisposed, first, to the Democratic Party – that goes back to the New Deal Coalition – but secondly, to Obama since Romney has had very poor union leadership relationships. I wanted to get the exact numbers on that population, but it’s a large minority population and an increased Hispanic population since then. The – some of the bigger unions are heavily minorities, such as AFSCME, the federal and state employees.

On Condoleezza Rice, she’s always surprising. It’s like when pictures of her supposedly turned up in Qadhafi’s room. I mean, it will do just about as much good. I don’t know why – she would help him get the black vote if she didn’t talk. But the minute she opens her mouth and says something Bush-like, it’s going to – it’ll be – won’t be as bad as West, because she’s not as conservative.

Let me give you one specific example. When he had in his cabinet, Bush, both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, a race-related issue took national attention, the affirmative action was before the courts. And Colin Powell strayed from the standard Republican Bush position and said he would support affirmative action. She didn’t. She said she did not support it. Under extreme reaction and pressure, she changed her mind. So that says two things. One is she’s going to start off with a political and policy orientation that’s going to – if she were to get there, she’d have to move extremely right because Romney’s trying to get as far right.

So that – first of all, she’s not going to be the – you can make a prediction because that wouldn’t make a lot of sense. But secondly, if she did, she would probably have the same label that some negative people have accused Romney of, as being unpredictable. She’s never campaigned either.

MS. ROBINSON: Sure. Right here.

QUESTION: Thanks for the second (inaudible). How important is national security for African American community, in terms of issues?

MR. MORRIS: I wish I could give you a solid answer. I know what the polls say, that it rates about the same as others, maybe a little less. I, unfortunately, cannot say whether it is a – I can say it’s probably not a critical issue any more than terrorism would be. Some voters, if you’re in New York or maybe Florida or places where national security issues are salient, would give it more credence than others. But I don’t think – except if you maybe said terrorism, I don’t think you would get that as a critical issue, and to the extent it is, it would probably be slightly less than for others, since employment and social welfare policies tend to have a higher place.


QUESTION: Professor, I’m interested in the role of polls in these elections. How accurate they get the real sense of what’s going on in the country? Should they be – are they credible now? Or I mean, how do – should we trust the polls?

MR. MORRIS: Well, as they used to tell me in graduate school when I took these courses related to polling, they’re always right the day they’re taken for the population they refer you. Very often, we don’t know the population they (inaudible). You know the average national poll rarely exceeds 400 respondents in these election results. And then sometimes before election, they go up to 1,000.

So the distribution for minorities is marginal. And they have to do what they call weight minority respondents give, minorities, because there aren’t enough of them. And so that has made historically those answers very marginal. But over the years, there has been some degree of predictability, but the predictability is very low on ideological factors, so that if major issues are going to make a change, it won’t be – show up in how – turnout is hard to measure for minorities, particularly. And so turnout was (inaudible) in the last election.

And then secondly, turnout affected by ideological issues. If somebody makes a major change of position, it will be hard to project. I would think they’d be more accurate now because you don’t expect any clear dramatic change on the part of Romney, though that might happen. And you certainly don’t expect the very – I won’t say – very careful Obama to make any dramatic changes. So given the likelihood of stability of turnout going back to its pre – to ’08 levels, they should be more accurate except for the Hispanic population because that has increased and new in some of the areas.

One example that I think all media people need to be conscious of, there are place-related polling, such as exit polls, because typically they – well, they have been done to identify minorities by the place in which they respond. So then, if you go then into an entirely black neighborhood and you get responses and you have two or three, which would be most of – a large significant part of (inaudible).

But in fact, in overwhelmingly black areas, the few non-blacks that are there are disproportionally likely to respond. But the responses will show up as black responses, which is how, by the way, you get 4 to 5 percent blacks voting for McCain. Maybe – I don’t think they exist. It’s just that the exit polls are structured in such a way as to give a minimal level to almost any minority because you have to weight some responses to make sure they’re adequately measured. And since minorities within minorities – you got whites in black neighborhoods – tend to be more likely to talk to pollsters, either by phone or in person, you get this disproportion.

So when – in a tight race, it can be significant, but I don’t think it’ll be significant unless the race is very tight – the difference (inaudible).

MS. ROBINSON: Any other questions? Okay, with that, we will end here. Thank you very much, Dr, Morris.

MR. MORRIS: Okay. Thank you for the opportunity.

# # #