How the Nonwhite Vote Returned Yesterday (Instead of Collapsing Like It Always Does)

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 6 2013 12:35 PM

How the Nonwhite Vote Returned Yesterday (Instead of Collapsing Like It Always Does)

Smart people tell us that Election Day exit polls are not the best way to determine the real racial breakdowns of the electorate. "I am skeptical of the composition of the exit poll sample," said pollster Geoff Garin to reporters today. "We will know for sure once there is a precinct analysis and the voter file is updated, but I would be surprised if African-Americans were 20 percent of the turnout."

Well, I'm not all that smart, and I work with what's out there. What's out there suggests that nonwhite turnout increased in 2013 relative to 2009, something that Chris Christie dealt with well and other Republicans dealt with ... rather less well.

The story starts in Virginia. In 2009, the Democrats' worst year all decade, they lost all the turnout gains they'd won among nonwhite voters in the Obama year. The white vote rose from 70 to 78 percent of the electorate; the black and Hispanic vote share fell, respectively, from 20 to 16 and 5 to 3. Republicans let this go to their heads, and were shocked when Obama reunited his 2008 coalition to beat Mitt Romney. And hell, I expected some drop-off this year, widening Cuccinelli's narrow path to victory.

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But the 2013 coalition—led by a white Democrat whom most of the electorate did not even like—was more remarkable. Relative to 2009, the white share of the vote fell from 78 to 72 percent. The black vote share rose, like Garin said/doubted, from 16 to 20 percent; the Hispanic vote inched up from 3 to 4 percent. McAuliffe, who lost white voters by 20 points, would not have won. Cuccinelli sarcastically thanked Barack Obama on the campaign trail, for coming to the state and raising the profile of Obamacare. Cute, but the president's job in Virginia was to rouse nonwhites—and he did so.

Over to New Jersey. Chris Christie was going to win anyway, but he turned a large win into a landslide by campaigning for nonwhite votes. In 2009, an election that featured heavy Democratic campaigning in black areas and a visit from the president, whites made up 73 percent of the electorate. This year, as Democrats readied to lose a statewide race by the biggest margin since the 1980s, the white vote share edged down to 72 percent. Christie won whites by an astounding 41 points, but he told the media to watch how people of all races would vote for him—and they did. Christie won 21 percent of the black vote and 51 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Now over to North Carolina. Patrick Cannon, a black Democrat, held the Charlotte mayor's office for Democrats in a city that's actually pretty competitive between the parties. (Current Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was previously Charlotte's mayor.) Cannon won the way that Barack Obama had won—a huge early vote cushion, 65 percent of the vote. And McAuliffe won with one of the tactics that have brought out nonwhite or irregular voters in other states: social pressure. The homes of people who don't normally vote in off-years but voted for president a few times were sent mail informing them of this pattern, and telling them how often their neighbors voted. It sounds creepy, but as my colleague Sasha Issenberg has reported, it works.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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