November 8, 2013
President Obama at campaign rally with Terry McAuliffe (Cliff Owen/AP)
President Obama, right, at campaign rally with Terry McAuliffe (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

The news is filled with stories about nervous Democrats up for reelection who are worried that the terrible roll-out of HealthCare.gov will force them to involuntarily spend more time with their families. And that’s a valid concern. But Terry McAuliffe’s win in Old Dominion shows that involuntary early retirement can be forestalled if African American voters are fired up.

A truism of American politics is that turnout in off-year elections is low. A corollary is that African Americans especially won’t show up at the voting booth. This belief bled over into the 2012 presidential election because Republicans thought black voters would stay home on Election Day, disillusioned and demoralized by President Obama’s four years in office. They also thought all those voter-suppression efforts around the country would intimidate black folks into staying home.

Anyone who spent just 10 minutes talking to African Americans would have known such thinking was flawed, at best. As we now know, thanks to a Census Bureau report from May, the rate of African American voters in the 2012 presidential election surpassed that of whites for the first time. Still, there was reasonable worry among Democrats that without Obama on the ballot, the old pattern would reassert itself.

In an excellent post for “First Read,” NBC News Deputy Political Editor Domenico Montanaro dove into the numbers behind McAuliffe’s Virginia victory and concluded that a big reason why he won against the odds was black voters.

McAuliffe won black voters by a 90-8 percent margin, a similar spread to the 93-6 percent President Barack Obama ran up in the 2012 presidential election in the Old Dominion.

Black voters also voted at a similar clip to the 2012 election. They made up 20 percent of voters, or one of every five people who went to the polls. That’s exactly the percentage of the electorate black voters made up for Obama in 2012 in Virginia.

McAuliffe was able to eke out a three-point win because African American voters showed up at the polls in the same numbers as they did during the presidential election year. Montanaro gets into the many reasons why they did; chief among them was having Obama’s back in the face of persistent Republican opposition on everything.

Over the summer, I asked my uncle Linwood if he voted in the 2012 presidential election. “Obama is still in there because I voted,” he said proudly. Linwood lives in North Carolina, which the president lost by 2.2 percentage points. Nevertheless, his view that his vote was part of a larger successful effort to keep the Obamas in the White House is widespread. Now, imagine what black voters could do in the 2014 midterm elections if that attitude holds.

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Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.