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21 Oct 2023
Steven Shepard

NextImg:Democrats keep getting new warning signs about Black voter support

Democrats are about to find out how worried they need to be about Black voter support.

After a lot of hand-wringing in recent years, elections next month in Mississippi and Virginia — two Southern states with large Black populations — will offer one final, robust read going into 2024 on the extent of the slippage among Democrats’ most reliable bloc of voters.

The warning signs have been flashing.

President Joe Biden’s approval rating with Black voters has dropped disproportionately compared with white voters, polls show, driving down his overall numbers. Last week’s election of a Republican governor in Louisiana, the first in eight years, suggested diminished voter enthusiasm in the areas with the largest Black populations.

And just this week, a prominent Democratic data firm published a report outlining declining support for Democrats in last year’s midterm elections among younger Black voters, Black men and Black voters without college degrees.

There’s no one simple answer for why Democrats are losing Black support at the margins. Some conservative Black voters are aligning with the GOP as the parties become more ideologically homogenous. And inflation and other economic struggles in recent years — which have driven much of the widespread dissatisfaction with Biden — have hit communities of color harder.

What’s clear is that Biden can’t safely assume he’ll be able to reassemble the coalition that he rode to victory three years ago. Black support for Democrats has been slipping slightly for the better part of a decade, since Barack Obama, the country’s first Black president, was last on the ballot in 2012.

There are signs Republicans may have continued since 2020 to pull some Black voters away from Democrats. That is bad news for Biden.

In a Quinnipiac University poll this week, about 2-in-3 Black voters, 65 percent, said they approve of the way Biden is handling his job as president.

A Fox News poll earlier this month found Biden leading Trump in a hypothetical rematch among Black voters by a roughly three-to-one margin, 74 percent to 26 percent. That may seem high, but it’s down sharply from 2020, when Biden won 90 percent of Black voters, according to Democratic data firm Catalist.

The firm releases studies of the electorate using records showing which people voted in an election. This week, it released new reports analyzing voter subgroups, and its deep dive into Black voters showed support for Democrats fell in last year’s midterms.

The new analysis found that 88 percent of Black voters in the 2022 elections voted for the Democratic candidate in their congressional district — down from 91 percent two years earlier.

The steepest drops for Democrats were among Black voters in the millennial and Gen Z generations (from 91 percent in 2020 to 84 percent in 2022), Black men (87 percent to 83 percent), Black voters in rural areas (84 percent to 80 percent) and Black voters without a college degree (91 percent to 87 percent).

The danger for Democrats among Black voters is also about turnout, and last week’s election for governor in Louisiana was the latest warning.

Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry won the election to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards. Landry was long expected to prevail in the end, but the timing and scope of his victory surprised many who thought he would finish under the 50-percent-plus-one threshold to win the seat outright in the primary.

There’s evidence that Democrats — and Black voters in particular — didn’t show up. Statewide turnout was about 36 percent, down a steep 10 points from 46 percent in the 2019 gubernatorial primary. But the turnout drop was even sharper in many of the state’s parishes with large Black populations.

Of the 15 Louisiana parishes where Census data show at least 40 percent of residents are Black, the turnout drop was greater than the statewide average in 10 of them, including in the parishes containing the state’s two largest cities, New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

On the other end of the spectrum, 10 of the 15 parishes with the smallest Black populations had turnout drops that were smaller than the statewide average. It will be a few weeks until official turnout data by race are available, but there does appear to be some connection between shifts in turnout at the parish level and the racial component of those places.

“The anemic Black vote was certainly part of” how Landry decisively won last week, said John Couvillon, a Republican pollster in Louisiana.

“You had a Black candidate for governor who, number one, failed to excite any kind of Black turnout, number two, ran 20 percentage points behind a white, moderate Democrat,” Couvillon said, pointing to Democratic candidate Shawn Wilson’s underperformance compared to Edwards’ successful reelection campaign four years ago. “And number three, Jeff Landry was getting double digits [in heavily Black precincts] once you got outside of the urban areas of Baton Rouge and New Orleans — that very much catches my attention.”

Of course, that’s just one election, and there are reasons to take the Louisiana results with a grain of salt. In particular, Wilson was vastly underfunded compared to Landry and groups supporting other GOP candidates. Wilson spent about $610,000 on advertising, according to data from AdImpact, far less than Landry ($7.2 million), the Republican Governors Association’s PAC ($3.7 million), another pro-Landry outside group called Protect Louisiana’s Children ($2.7 million), a PAC supporting the third-place finisher Stephen Waguespack ($2 million) and the fourth-place candidate John Schroder ($1.9 million).

So I’ll be watching several races in the coming weeks for signs of depressed enthusiasm or shifting winds among this key bloc of voters.

At the top of my list is next month’s gubernatorial election in Mississippi, where Black voters make up nearly 40 percent of the electorate, the largest share of any state in the country. Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee, is competitive with GOP Gov. Tate Reeves on the airwaves. And Presley’s campaign is touting a multimillion-dollar, get-out-the-vote effort aimed at Black voters.

Presley is the underdog against Reeves, and a defeat doesn’t mean his party is in a death spiral with Black voters nationally — Mississippi hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1999. But the final results from Nov. 7 will be instructive, both in cities like Jackson and in rural counties that comprise the “Black Belt” that stretches across the South.

Also keep your eyes on the state legislative races in Virginia, which also has a sizable Black population.

Two of the most competitive state Senate races are in Southeast Virginia districts where Black residents make up at least a quarter of the population, as are three contested state House districts stretching from Petersburg to Hampton Roads.

Those races could be the majority-makers for each party in the pitched battle to control both chambers of the General Assembly. They’ll also provide more answers about where Black voters stand — and how enthusiastic they are — going into 2024.