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The Non-Mystery of Black-Voter Turnout Decline in 2016 [Media Bias Edition]

In the era of Donald Trump, basic media literacy has never been more necessary.

Pew ResearchPew Research"Black voter turnout rate declined sharply in 2016, dropping below that of whites" reads the ominous headline at Pew Research's "Fact Tank" site. The sentiment—and the whisper of voter suppression by white Republicans—is mirrored in dozens of news stories covering the topic. How quickly we forget what is likely to happen when the two major parties run candidates who were historically disliked, distrusted, and dismissed by the public: You get less voters. As Pew notes in passing, overall voter participation, the percentage of eligible voters who bothered casting a ballot, was lower in 2016 (61.4 percent) than it was in 2008 (63.6 percent).

That's not a sexy story, though, is it, especially in a country overseen by a brute who is the least-popular president in recorded history?

So what is the simplest explanation for the drop in black-voter turnout between 2016 and 2012? Surely it's Hillary Clinton, as the GOP share of the black vote hasn't cracked more than 15 percent since 1960. Her enthusiasm gap among all voters was widely noted and understood, even as Barack Obama's support among African Americans was sky-high.

The Pew writeup is interesting less for what it tells us about voting trends and more for how the media frames things. "A record 137.5 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election," begins Pew's account, even as the authors acknowledge later that fewer eligible voters showed up, despite increasingly easy ways to cast ballots. Raw numbers in a country whose population is growing are essentially meaningless, but leading with them does work to make the reduction in black-turnout numbers seem troubling (turnout for women, Latinos, and Asians was essentially unchanged). However, if you put aside Obama's two campaigns, blacks turned out in the same percentage as they did in 2004, when John Kerry was facing one of the least-popular incumbents in the past 50 years and last year, blacks turned out in higher percentages than they did in every election since 1992, a generational-change election featuring a young Southern governor from Arkansas who reached out to minorities in a potent and purposeful way.

David DeebleDavid DeebleThe real story about turnout in 2016 is that despite the scorched-earth tactics of both major parties and candidates, voters didn't flock to the polls to stave off impending doom. That's a result that makes me hopeful that 2016 was indeed the final election of the 20th century, an ugly fistfight between old baby boomers who have no idea of what the world is like anymore. For all their attacks and jawing, neither Clinton nor Trump brought anything substantively new to the table in terms of policy and forward-looking vision. Clinton and her main Democratic rival Bernie Sanders were essentially calling for a return to 1970s-style governance big on expert rule. Whether he's talking about nonexistent crime waves, coal mining, or industrial jobs that peaked as a part of the economy decades ago, Trump is frankly nostalgic for the world in which he grew up.

I submit that many of us intuited that whichever person got elected, we understand we are in a pause before the federal government starts to seriously reflect the massive and ongoing changes that have dramatically remade our commericial, cultural, and personal lives so much for the better. We do not have an inexhaustible amount of time on our side—old-age entitlements are bankrupting the country and autopilot deficit spending is already muffling economic growth—but the pickings were slim last fall, at least among major-party candidates. Here's pushing for 2020 to have a better cast of characters who will offer a reason to vote in larger numbers. And, while I'm making wishes, media that analyze trends more dispassionately.

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  • ||

    "Black voter turnout rate returns to level seen when no black candidate on ballot"

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    Exactly. How did this article miss the giant elephant (ok bad pun) in the room?

    All races were roughly flat since 2004, except for blacks. It turns out that if you put a candidate on the ballot that looks like a group of people, that group of people will vote in larger numbers. It's not exactly rocket science.

  • ||

    But as we all know, "it's only racism if you have "power'"

  • Lexicon B'Devil||

    You're ignoring that black turnout hasn't ever been flat. It's been rising since 1992. Since then there has been seven elections, five featuring all white candidates. This suggests voter suppression. And of course we ignore that white turnout in 2012 was lowest since 96'.

  • Ken Shultz||

    You'd think that would be the very first explanation mentioned--and mentioned explicitly.

    "However, if you put aside Obama's two campaigns, blacks turned out in the same percentage as they did in 2004"

    Maybe the reason is because blacks never had a chance to vote for a black candidate in a general election before 2008, and then they showed up to vote to retain him four years later. Now that voting for a black candidate is no longer on the menu, they're not as interested in coming to the restaurant and placing an order anymore.

    Just from conversations I have with black friends and associates, I suspect they're less reluctant to attribute their own support for Obama to the fact that he's black than other people. My black friends and acquaintances were not shy about attributing their support for Obama to his race.

    Sometimes I think white liberals (not Gillespie) are more bothered by things than the groups they think they're defending. Average women aren't as offended by things as the elitist feminists who think they're defending average women from sexism. Average gay people may not be as sensitive as the activists who think they're defending them. And average blacks may not be as sensitive and in need of protection by white liberals as white liberals imagine.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Admitting that sort of thing destroys the white liberal raison d'etre.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    The point that many black people voted for Obama because he was black is openly discussed among black people. It's only racist when white people bring it up though.

    One of the funniest observations for election 2016 is that a woman candidate did not get a women voting for a women percentage equivalent like Obama did from Black people. The left knows this happened but it is not openly discussed. Trump got about 42% of women votes.

  • Ken Shultz||

    "It's only racist when white people bring it up though."

    And if anyone is accusing someone of racism for suggesting that blacks may have supported Obama because he was the first black president--it probably isn't black people.

    It's probably white liberals accusing people of racism for saying that a lot of black people supported Obama because of his race. White liberals imagine themselves as race cops, and historically, a lot of black people have resented the hell out of that. And they should.

    It's paternalistic. It's treating black people like children who need someone to protect them. If it isn't racist, it can sure be easily mistaken for racism.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Yeah, I was hoping more black people voted Libertarian for the reasons you mention. I think as more black people move into the Middle Class and pay Middle Class taxes, they can really see how the left has held them down.

    Some Republicans that I know are surprised that black people don't vote for Republicans in large numbers since Lincoln was Republican. I tell them that one reason is the great media spin that Democrats were not the party of slavery. A second reason is free stuff and that is hard to advocate against.

  • Ken Shultz||

    Hayek's affection for free markets crystallized as the system that is most advantageous to the poor. Free market capitalism creates opportunities for social advancement like nothing else can and makes people look past race in their relations with other people--makes them look to market forces instead.

    Has anyone ever found that some variable for race overrides market forces in a free market? I don't believe so, and shouldn't that make free markets gospel good news to historical victims of discrimination?

    Minds sometimes change at a generational pace. Baby boomers can still remember segregation--both white and black. Our politics are heavily influenced by experience--especially when we're young. All other arguments aside, I watched the Soviet Union implode under the burden of central planning when I was young. If my politically defining moments were over questions of segregation, maybe I'd be different.

    Give them another generation or two. Reality is on our side, and that means time is probably on our side as well--although there are no guarantees.

  • Mark22||

    It's probably white liberals accusing people of racism for saying that a lot of black people supported Obama because of his race.

    I fail to see an accusation in that. I mean, having a black president is a nice gimmick, and given how little difference it makes who you vote for, you might as well vote based on that.

  • Lexicon B'Devil||

    The only people who accused black people of being racist were Republicans. Just look at the Fox news coverage back in 2008. That's despite the fact that most blacks supported Hillary at first.

  • Lexicon B'Devil||

    It's not openly discussed among black people because we would have still voted for Obama even if he was white.

  • JuanQPublic||

    "Average women aren't as offended by things as the elitist feminists who think they're defending average women from sexism. Average gay people may not be as sensitive as the activists who think they're defending them. And average blacks may not be as sensitive and in need of protection by white liberals as white liberals imagine."

    Well said, and I think it also runs deeper. The disconnected "elitism", or whatever we call it, which purportedly seeks to "defend" people, isn't actually intended to protect people's rights. If it were, we'd see some set of principles guiding it. Rather, it's just riding the wave of outrage for political self-preservation. So it plays to much of the same irrational reactionism that their political opponents play to. They want similar draconian policy that abandons any principle whatsoever.

    Principled positions and the nuance that comes with them get steamrolled in the face of an angry mob. Constitutionalists understand this, and can more readily see the sh-t show for what it is. History tells us the oppressed often become the oppressor. The Constitution is a barrier to mob rule, from both hysterical liberals and hardliner social conservatives. It doesn't always work, but thankfully it's there.

  • Jima||

    ^^^That's a damn good summary, I think

  • BYODB||


    My black friends and acquaintances were not shy about attributing their support for Obama to his race.

    Every single last one of my co-workers (100% Black) and friends have said the exact same thing since before he was elected through now. We all knew it at the time, too, and I don't think people are really that upset about it considering it was a pretty huge historical event even if the guy turned out to be just a slightly smoother used car salesman.

    It's enough to make me think that the people who are writing these stories don't actually know any of these 'minority' people.

  • Lexicon B'Devil||

    "My black friends and acquaintances were not shy about attributing their support for Obama to his race."

    i don't believe you. This claim is too convenient. I'm black with a black family numbering in the hundreds and no one I know ever stated they supported Obama because of his race. If anything, people were suspicious that he was half-Kenyan and not actually African-American.

  • Lexicon B'Devil||

    The problem with this claim is that it does not return to level. Black turnout has been climbing even before Obama ran. If Obama didn't run in 2008 we would expect black turnout to big larger than 2004. Just look at the chart, jeez. The fact that it returned to 2004 levels can't simply be due to Obama not running.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You get less voters.

    And you call yourself an editor, Gillespie.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Fist "Stannis Baratheon" of Etiquette

  • Crusty Juggler aka "Chad"||

    Thank you.

  • Seamus||

    That jumped out at me, too. Or maybe Gillespie thinks that you weigh voters rather than count them.

  • Jerryskids||

    "Fewer" is used when you are referring to discrete units, a basket of deplorables is not a set of discrete units, dumbass.

  • Libertarian||

    Editor, hell. He has an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in English lit. (OBTW, I see in his wikipedia entry that his sons are named Jack and Neal -- is he that much of a Kerouac fan???)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Those names are like a setup to an Andrew Dice Clay joke.

  • Robbzilla||

    Add a Robert to the list (Not me please), and you're there, snapperhead! Ohhh!

  • SIV||

    old baby boomers who have no idea of what the world is like anymore

    Like the "editor" who thinks "the kids" still listen to Lou Reed records on their "stereos".

  • Rhywun||

    on their "stereos"

    LOL I remember those

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Did you have Hi-Fi?

  • Rhywun||

    Quadraphonics.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Remember that "stereo" button on a stereo?

  • Entropy Drehmaschine Void||

    My recordplayer had one.

  • Rhywun||

    My family's 8-track might have had one.

  • Robbzilla||

    My family had an 8 track recorder... true story!

  • Longtobefree||

    I did indeed; it was a major improvement.

  • Domestic Dissident||

    And that the Fonz's leather jacket is still really cool.

  • Rhywun||

    nonexistent crime waves

    Shhh... don't tell Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis, ....

  • Bubba Jones||

    Chicago murder rate is dropping at the same rate as the rest of the country. But that still leaves it as an outlier.

  • Rhywun||

    Only if you stop counting at 2015. Murders are way up.

  • JuanQPublic||

    There is no "crime wave", despite what Jeff Sessions and his true believers purport. Upticks in some anecdotal examples don't change this.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Tell that to the people of Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis....

    I think they care about your dismissal of anecdotal examples more than you do.

  • JuanQPublic||

    "Tell that to the people of Chicago, Cleveland, Baltimore, St. Louis...."

    That's the usual claptrap. It still doesn't change the lack of a "crimewave" sweeping the U.S.

  • Rhywun||

    It still doesn't change the lack of a "crimewave" sweeping the U.S.

    I just gave 4 examples of crime waves to counter Nick's suggestion that there aren't any. I'm not talking nation-wide.

  • JuanQPublic||

    "I'm not talking nation-wide."

    Jeff Sessions is.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Then what is your point?

  • Lexicon B'Devil||

    Crime is down in all four of those cities.

  • Lester224||

    Local crime fluctuations in cities don't warrant federal policies to lock up more MJ users and put them into private for-profit prisons.

  • Lester224||

    Local crime fluctuations in cities don't warrant federal policies to lock up more MJ users and put them into private for-profit prisons.

  • Mickey Rat||

    The fact that a statistically significant pecentage of black voters were voting their race rather than any real affiliation with a party or a platform in 2008 and '12 is a bit embarrassing for the MSM to admit when they want to criticize Trump voters for supporting a nationalist quasi-racist candidate.

  • Jerryskids||

    Hence the broad support for President Herman Cain.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Cain never got to the general election.

  • Anastasia Beaverhausen||

    "...but the pickings were slim last fall, at least among major-party candidates"

    The comma should have been replaced by a period. The pickings were slim last fall. There wasn't a clothes-pin strong enough to hold my nose to the point where I could have voted for the Republican-Lite ticket of Johnson-Weld.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    the Republican-Lite ticket of Johnson-Weld.

    I thought we had all agreed they were Democrat-Lite? /sarc

  • Glide||

    Let's just agree on Candidate-Lite.

  • Ecoli||

    The Democrats suppressed the black vote. They nominated Hillary.

  • Libertarian||

    So Republicans, Independents, and blacks wanted anybody but Hillary. Who says she can't bring the country together?

  • sarcasmic||

    I wonder what the narrative would be if white voter turnout was significantly affected by the race of the candidates.

    Actually, I don't wonder. Not a bit.

  • Dick Puller, Attorney at Law||

  • Rhywun||

    Overall, there has been 'too little', rather than 'too much' political correctness as perceived by conservatives in the west.

    Way too many words clouded by social-justice fog and still not arriving at the possibility that maybe the Chinese don't want our political correctness.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Thanks. Interesting article about the Baizuo.

    The media could be talking about differences/similarities between Americans, Europe and China to bring a common understanding of the World's problems. North Korea is an example.

    Of course when you discuss China is any meaningful way, their system of Communism will come up and the Chinese cannot publicly criticize it without serious risk and the American media would rather have Capitalism be destroyed than Communism.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Here's pushing for 2020 to have a better cast of characters who will offer a reason to vote in larger numbers. And, while I'm making wishes, media that analyze trends more dispassionately.

    Keep dreaming.

  • damikesc||

    So, black voting turnout returned to being below whites, as it has been in every election save one ever. News flash.

  • damikesc||

    I submit that many of us intuited that whichever person got elected, we understand we are in a pause before the federal government starts to seriously reflect the massive and ongoing changes that have dramatically remade our commericial, cultural, and personal lives so much for the better. We do not have an inexhaustible amount of time on our side—old-age entitlements are bankrupting the country and autopilot deficit spending is already muffling economic growth—but the pickings were slim last fall, at least among major-party candidates. Here's pushing for 2020 to have a better cast of characters who will offer a reason to vote in larger numbers. And, while I'm making wishes, media that analyze trends more dispassionately.

    Sure, one of the parties is going hard Left and the youth tend to vote for that party. I bet your hopes will work out just swell, Nick.

  • Jerryskids||

    The youth will be older in 2020. Many of them will have graduated from college and gotten jobs. Let's see what they think about Bernie's Free Shit campaign once their paycheck stubs start making them a little curious about where all the free shit comes from.

  • BYODB||


    "...the youth tend to vote for that party..."

    Well, in-so-far that they vote at all perhaps but they're not a meaningful voting bloc numerically. This is rather like the old-timers narrative that 'the youth' got Barak Obama voted in when if I recall correctly their percentage of the vote was something like 10-15%. It's not insignificant, but it also isn't a major driver of who gets elected.

  • tlapp||

    Of course the only logical conclusion is that many black people are racist and won't show up to vote for a white person. How's that for identity politics?

  • ||

    "That just means they're under represented and repressed..."

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: The Non-Mystery of Black-Voter Turnout Decline in 2016

    This is all whiteys fault.
    Not to mention of the fault of gravity, paved roads, indoor plumbing and modern medicine.
    If we didn't have any of these oppressive items, then black voter turnout would sky rocket.
    Its hell living in such a cruel and racist society.

  • ||

    For a moment, I always wonder why they put Janet Yellen's face in so many Reason articles, then I remember.

  • Longtobefree||

    "A record 137.5 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election,".
    Actually 137.5 million votes were cast. Not that many individuals voted.

  • Lester224||

    Tin-foil hat time.

  • Mark22||

    Clinton nor Trump brought anything substantively new to the table in terms of policy and forward-looking vision

    As a libertarian, I prefer candidates without "forward-looking vision".

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