Improving Economic Prospects May Bring Minorities to the Polls

Improving Economic Prospects May Bring Minorities to the Polls

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The Republican Party has hit rock bottom when it comes to appealing to black voters, according to recent polls. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in late summer found zero percent black voters supporting Mitt Romney’s candidacy.

That’s no typo. Republican support in the African-American community has dwindled to negligible levels, down from the 4 percent won by John McClain, President Obama’s 2008 opponent.

This isn’t just about the nation’s first African-American president cementing overwhelming support from his own ethnic group, although that obviously plays a role. Black support for Republican candidates has been slipping for years. As recently as the 1980s, 11 percent of African-Americans voted for Ronald Reagan. In 2000, 8 percent of their votes went to George W. Bush.

The conventional wisdom suggests that this year’s group solidarity has been fostered by the vitriolic nature of the attacks leveled against the president. While the Republican candidate or his surrogate have dissociated themselves from claims in the conservative press and blogosphere that the president is a Muslim, or from Kenya, or isn’t a real Christian, Congressional Republicans’ militant opposition to every Obama initiative has not gone unnoticed in the black community.

“They see the Republican Party's treatment of Obama, from the first weeks of his presidency, as an assault on a kind of racial collective dignity,” Sherrilyn A. Ifill, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, wrote on the CNN website last month. “This includes remarks such as GOP trash-talker John Sununu's description of the first black president of the United States as ‘lazy’ after his poor debate performance.”

But just because Romney’s fate appears to be zero or near-zero support from blacks, that doesn’t mean they will turn out in droves. No community has greater cause to be disappointed by the performance of the U.S. economy over the past four years.

Romney himself has frequently focused public attention on the nation’s 15 percent poverty rate. If he were trying to appeal to black voters, he might have simultaneously pointed out that the rate among whites is just 9.8 percent, while among blacks it is 27.6 percent and among Hispanics it is 25.3 percent, according to Census Bureau data.

Black wealth all but evaporated during the Great Recession. According to a Pew Research Center survey, the median net worth of white households fell 16 percent between 2005 and 2009 to $113,149 while median black household wealth plunged 53 percent to $5,677, barely 5 percent of their white counterparts. The median Hispanic household’s wealth also fell sharply, down 66 percent to $6,635. While there has been some modest recovery over the last three years, household wealth in minority communities remains at extremely depressed levels.

And then, of course, there is the bellwether unemployment rate. While Obama took some political solace earlier this month when unemployment finally fell to the same level as when he took office – 7.8 percent – the situation is vastly different for the nation’s minority communities. Black unemployment remains at 13.4 percent, nearly twice as the white unemployment rate which is 7 percent. Hispanic unemployment is 9.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet various polls and pundits are turning up evidence that African-American voters are gearing up to show up at the polls in huge numbers – at least equal to their voting levels in 2008 when they helped sweep Obama into office. Their votes – assuming voter suppression efforts prove insignificant – could wind up being crucial in swing states like Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where there are substantial minority populations.

A story in Sunday’s New York Times’ Seth Stephens-Davidowitz looked at search engine searches in areas with high concentrations of minorities and found that the intensity of interest this year rivaled 2008, not the depressed levels of 2004. “By this metric, it does seem that pollsters should assume a black share of the electorate similar to that of 2008, when African-Americans made up an estimated 12 percent of the electorate, rather than 2004, when it was 11 percent — a good sign for Mr. Obama,” he said.

More traditional metrics offer another reason for the president’s turnout team to be optimistic. Black and Hispanic voters have cause to be especially hopeful at this stage of the business cycle. In fact, it’s already showing up in the numbers.

Over the last 12 months, the black unemployment rate has fallen a full 2.5 percentage points. Latino workers have seen their unemployment rate fall nearly a full point. Both are significantly bigger declines than the six-tenths of a percentage point improvement among whites.

Moreover, far more minorities are finding jobs and are rejoining the labor force than are whites, according the latest data from the BLS. While an estimated 174,000 white workers found jobs in the past year (a time when the labor force size remained essentially unchanged), an estimated 657,000 black workers found jobs, far more than the 249,000 black workers who rejoined the labor force. Hispanics did even better: 1.64 million found jobs, even as their labor force size increased by 1.5 million.

“At the outset of a recession, the unemployment rate shifts higher more dramatically for blacks and Latinos,” said Peter Mueser, a labor market economist at the University of Missouri. “When the economy improves, it’s good news for people at the bottom, even more than those in the middle.”

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.