At another of his “thank you” rallies on Thursday night, Donald Trump expressed his deep gratitude to the black voters who didn't turn out to vote last month.
The crowd applauded.
Trump offered similar praise last week in Michigan — another of the states that he wasn't expected to win, but did. The black community “came through big league,” he said then. “If they had any doubt, they didn't vote. And that was almost as good,” he added.
It's not the case that Trump did particularly well with black voters. Exit polling shows that he got the lowest level of support from black voters of any Republican in the last four decades — except for those Republicans running against the first black president of the United States. He got less support from black voters than George W. Bush did in 2004, for example.
But as you can see from that chart, the percent of the electorate that was black dipped this year, down to 12 percent from 13 percent four years ago.
If we compare the change in voter turnout in each county with the percentage of the county that's black, the pattern is pretty obvious, especially through the Deep South.
Both nationally and in the states that made the difference for Trump — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which he won by a combined 80,000 votes — there's a clear correlation between the density of the black population in a county and the shift in turnout.
Trump had an explanation for the shift in turnout: “A bunch of people didn't show up,” he said in Michigan, “because they felt good about me.”
That's not usually how voting works. Trump and Hillary Clinton were the two most unpopular candidates in modern history, and millions of people turned out to vote without casting a ballot in the presidential race, in many cases, no doubt, because they liked neither option.
You may recall that, shortly before the election, Bloomberg reported that Trump's campaign was specifically hoping to leverage apathy about Hillary Clinton to its advantage. From that article, by Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg:
Instead of expanding the electorate, [campaign chairman Steve] Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans. ... [H]er 1996 suggestion that some African American males are “super predators” is the basis of a below-the-radar effort to discourage infrequent black voters from showing up at the polls — particularly in Florida.
In Florida, turnout in counties that are 5 to 10 percent black was up 11.9 percent since 2012. In counties that are 20 to 30 percent black, it was up 5.7 percent. In counties that are 30 percent or more black, turnout was down.
In other words, keeping black people from turning out was an explicit strategy of Trump's campaign, according to this report, and it was not predicated on having black voters “feel good” about Trump.
The extent to which this had an effect, though, is certainly debatable. It seems fairly obvious that one reason for the dip in turnout among black voters was that Barack Obama was no longer on the ballot. The density of the black vote in 2008 and 2012 was higher than at any previous point; this year, it slipped back down a bit. It's far more likely that the decrease across the Deep South is a function of who was on the ballot far more than any surreptitious efforts by Trump's team.
We'd be remiss, though, if we didn't note that a number of states, including Wisconsin and several in the Deep South, implemented new voter ID requirements for the 2016 election. Voter ID laws often have the (not-always-unintended) effect of making it harder for poor people and people of color to vote. 2016 was the first presidential election since the Supreme Court voided part of the Voting Rights Act, a law intended to protect voting rights particularly for historically disenfranchised voters like black Southerners.
The 2016 election was close enough that any number of things could have flipped the result. Slightly higher turnout from black voters in the three key states is certainly one. But turnout was down, and Trump won. It may be unusual for a politician to openly celebrate low turnout — but in this case, it's certainly clear why Trump is enthusiastic about it.