Over the next few days, you are going to hear a whole lot about black voters. This happens every two to four years around this time, as pundits and political writers trot out conventional wisdom about the state of the black vote.
But it has been an even-more-intense process of temperature-taking because of President Obama and Democrats' midterm turnout deficit. So I thought it might be handy to put together an explainer on this much-debated, and somewhat-stereotyped Democratic voting bloc.
Myth No. 1: Black voters vote for candidates because they are black
There are a few permutations of this idea. One is the GOP idea that having black surrogates and getting black Republicans to run will sway black voters to their side. This was part of the Herman Cain phenomenon. It's the same with Ben Carson. And former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, it was hoped, would help the party expand its appeal. And even Obama hinted at this in a January interview in the New Yorker, suggesting that "there are some black folks and maybe some white folks who really like me and give me the benefit of the doubt precisely because I’m a black president.”
Yes, there has been an "Obama effect" on the electorate, with higher participation rates among the so-called "Obama coalition," which is in fact multicultural and not just black. But Al Gore got 90 percent of the black vote in 2000, and Obama won 95 percent eight years later. In margin-of-error terms, that's not much of a bump.
In actuality, black voters tend to vote for black candidates because most black candidates are Democrats. It has much more to do with partisan identity than cultural identity or affinity.
Even Steele, in his 2006 Maryland Senate campaign, took just just 25 percent of the black vote -- a very good showing for a Republican, but hardly a resounding performance.
Myth No. 2: Black leaders know what black voters think
It would be awfully great if we could just completely do away with the term "black leader," which really is a relic of a different time. The idea supposes that a black California congresswoman knows what's on the minds of black voters in Louisiana as they think about who to support in a Senate race -- or that there is some overarching essential collective black experience and thought pattern that the head of the NAACP can tap into.
The biggest test of this came in 2008 when black pastors and elected officials lined up for Hillary Rodham Clinton. In this instance, the endorsements by black pastors and politicians was supposed to be a stand-in and representative of the looming black vote in those areas. Of course, actual black voters steadily went the other way, backing Obama, even as black politicians clung to Clinton.
Really, the idea of "black leaders" is mostly just a convenient over-simplification for political reporters who need a pithy quote about what 44 million people might think. It has little use otherwise.
Myth No. 3: Candidates who distance themselves from Obama risk losing black voters
This is a big one that is starting to come up a bunch for all the midterm candidates vis a vis Obama. It's particularly been an issue for Kentucky's Alison Lundergan Grimes, who refused to say if she voted for Obama, citing "sanctity of the ballot" issues. (No "sanctity of the ballot" issues with talking about her support for Clinton though.)
This led to some hand-wringing among "black leaders" who said that black voters might stay home because of Grimes's move. But remember what we said about "black leaders"? The single most motivating factor for voters, including black voters, is their perceived self-interest. And they vote by party and for who the person they think is likely to represent those interests best. Just like other voters.In Kentucky and other Southern states, black voters likely get the tightrope Grimes is walking and the minefield of race and Southern politics.
You might hear consternation from "black leaders," but from actual voters, while there might be some grumbling, this is very unlikely to motivate them to stay at home (or vote for Mitch McConnell). Black people voted for Democrats before Obama existed and they will vote after he is out of office.
Myth No. 4: There is a huge, ginormous, midterm drop-off among black voters
Across the board, there is midterm drop-off among all voters in a midterm election. It's like the difference between a World Series game and a mid-season afternoon game. Good luck trying to bridge that divide.
But the idea that black voters across the board just forgo their civic duty in off presidential years in a dramatic way just isn't borne out by the data. And the nifty tool below proves it. Play around with it and you'll see interesting variations. For instance, take black unmarried high school graduates. In 2010, they had a 30 percent turnout rate. Their white counterparts had a 27 percent turnout rate. In 2012, the participation rate for that same group was 53 percent for blacks and 39 percent for whites. In both cases, the black portion of the demographic voted at higher rates.
As these charts show, the drop-off among black voters overall is actually only slightly bigger than among white voters -- and smaller than the decline among plenty of other demographics, including young people.
Myth No. 5: Blacks could support Republicans because they are socially conservative
Remember when Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage and black voters were supposed to jump ship because of it? And then remember how Obama, supporter of same-sex marriage, still got 94 percent of the black vote in 2012?
It is true that black religious voters hold views that are in line with white evangelicals on a host of issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Republicans — most recently Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — assume that at some point, there is going to be a great awakening among black religious voters and they will realize that their conservative views on social issues really makes them Republicans. The right someone just has to make the case.
President George W. Bush, backed by black pastors, did make this very case around same-sex marriage in 2004, and it worked in certain states.
Nationally, though, it helped him get a whopping 11 percent of the black vote, with John Kerry getting 88 percent.