There are two major demographics that helped Ralph Northam and the Democratic ticket win Virginia’s statewide elections: a strong performance with white and suburban voters, which has received considerable attention since last Tuesday, and high black turnout, which has not.
Northam won the majority of white college graduates: 58 percent of college-educated white women and 46 percent of college-educated white men, for an overall total of 51 percent support among white college graduates, outperforming Hillary Clinton by six percentage points. On a map of Virginia, this looks like a deep hue of blue over the Washington-adjacent suburbs of Northern Virginia, with a lighter but still very blue tint in areas like Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and the Richmond metropolitan area.
These results appear to vindicate Democratic strategists who see the party’s future in the once Republican-friendly suburbs that have moved from the GOP as that party veered sharply to the right. But while dissecting Democratic performance in those areas, one shouldn’t forget the other key component of Northam’s win—high turnout and strong support among voters of color, and black voters, in particular.
Segregation and gerrymandering have packed many black voters in uncompetitive districts. But they still play an important part in statewide races across the country, providing critical margins in tightly contested states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A Democratic Party that can replicate Virginia’s black turnout in other, demographically similar states is one with a stronger shot at capturing lost gains.
How well did Northam do among black Virginians? His margin was the almost 9 to 1 spread that’s typical of Democratic performance in the commonwealth (among black women in particular, Northam was almost the unanimous choice). More important was the extent of black turnout. Black voters were about 20 percent of the electorate, which was in line with their share in the last gubernatorial election, as well as the 2016 presidential race. But those steady numbers mask an important shift. There were nearly 600,000 more voters this year than in 2013. Black Virginians were part of that increase, coming out in larger numbers than in the past and sustaining their turnout rate. Put differently, the steady turnout rate masks a surge of black voting in the election. For comparison’s sake, black turnout dropped by 1 percentage point from 2013 to 2014, even as overall turnout stayed roughly the same. That drop cost Democrat Mark Warner tens of thousands of votes, imperiling his re-election chances.
In Virginia, black voters were already somewhat mobilized, thanks to Donald Trump and recent events in the state. In an August poll commissioned by BlackPAC, a progressive political action committee, 54 percent of black Virginians said they felt their communities were under assault, voicing high levels of racial anxiety in the wake of the white nationalist attacks in Charlottesville. They also were strongly anti-Trump and motivated to vote against him. Even still, at that point in the race, the Democratic ticket was underperforming with black voters relative to prior elections, threatening its viability in November. To counter this, BlackPAC recommended two actions: Speak directly to the economic and safety concerns of black communities, and speak directly to their racial anxiety, taking a strong, unambiguous stand against hate groups and discrimination.
Groups like BlackPAC did this, running ads that directly confronted racist messaging in the state. The candidate himself was more muddled. Northam took a stand against the state’s Confederate monuments but also condemned sanctuary cities and allowed a Democratic-affiliated group to print campaign mailers that omitted lieutenant governor candidate Justin Fairfax, who is black. Still, the collective Democratic effort largely recognized that voters were frightened by developments in Virginia and angered by the rhetoric coming from the Republican campaign, which played to white racial fears. Those efforts were helped by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, whose work to end felon disenfranchisement expanded the overall pool of black voters.
There are lessons here for Democrats in other states. In Alabama, Doug Jones stands a real chance at winning, after a Washington Post investigation revealed that his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, had pursued and allegedly abused teenage girls while he served as district attorney in the 1970s. Jones’ only path to victory involves extremely high black turnout coupled with a large enough minority of white voters. But while black Americans are more than a quarter of the voting age population in the state, they tend to turn out at lower rates than whites. Jones’ civil rights record is an asset, but he’ll need direct appeals to black voters to succeed.
Looking to next year’s statewide elections in places as different as Wisconsin and Georgia, high black turnout will be key to building a winning coalition. Having candidates of color on the ballot—a possibility in both states—helps. But to succeed, Democrats need to build a relationship with black communities that goes beyond “get out the vote,” that engages with their concerns and seeks to persuade them to vote for Democrats. Doing this, in essence reconstituting the “Obama coalition,” will strengthen the overall Democratic Party and put it in position to remove barriers to voting that keep turnout down overall.
Virginia shows the importance of white suburbanites to the Democratic Party. But it also shows the critical role black voters play in making those victories possible. As Democrats order their priorities for the coming year, it’s in their best interest to put persuading and mobilizing black Americans at the top of the agenda.