December 28, 2012

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For all the focus on Latinos as the deciding voters in last month’s election, the fact of the matter is that Mitt Romney could have won while losing a decisive share of the Latino vote— in the states that decided the election, Latinos were a small share of the electorate. If there is a single demographic group that doomed Mitt Romney’s chances, it’s African Americans. High black support and turnout for President Obama provided the margin of victory in Ohio, Virginia and Florida, and bolstered Obama’s totals in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Indeed, a new survey from the Pew Research Center shows that — for the second election in a row — African Americans voted at a higher rate than any other minority group and may have, for the first time in history, voted at a higher rate than whites. To wit, according to the Census Bureau, blacks were 12 percent of eligible voters this year but accounted for 13 percent of those who voted in the presidential election. By contrast, Latinos accounted for 10 percent of the electorate and Asian Americans 3 percent, several points lower than their share of the population. In other words, their political clout is, to some degree, a factor of population growth.

It’s worth noting that black turnout has been on an upward swing for 20 years. Just under 60 percent of eligible African Americans voted in the 1992 election. The percentage  dropped to just under 55 in 1996, in line with the broader drop off in turnout that year, but it climbed rapidly over the next decade. In 2008, 65.2 percent of eligible blacks voted in the election, compared to 66.1 percent of whites, 49.9 percent of Latinos and 47 percent of Asian Americans.

Given blacks’ near-unanimous support for President Obama, Republicans might be tempted to write off black voters as a lost cause. But that’s a dangerous gamble. Blacks provided key votes in major swing states, and they will continue to do so, as long as their turnout exceeds their share of the population. Republicans don’t have win black voters, they just need to lose less badly, which means — in practice — winning 10 to 12 percent of African Americans, rather than 3 to 5 percent, or lower. And if this seems like a dubious proposition, remember: Even Bob Dole managed to win 12 percent of black voters.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.