Could Obama Win Georgia?

From an electability standpoint, one the central arguments in Barack Obama's favor is the possibility that he will bring more black voters to the polls. ...
by | April 21, 2008

From an electability standpoint, one the central arguments in Barack Obama's favor is the possibility that he will bring more black voters to the polls. If Obama is the Democratic nominee and if his candidacy does increase African-American turnout, that has implications not only for the presidential race, but also for other elections from dogcatcher to U.S. senator. Black voters who came out for Obama would likely help Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.

In that context, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's politics blog pointed out something interesting recently about the Georgia presidential primary:

African-Americans cast 30 percent of all votes on Feb. 5. In November 2006, with gubernatorial candidate Mark Taylor at the top of the Democratic ticket, black voters cast only 24 percent of all ballots. This is the number causing Republicans to lose sleep.

Those figures come from the Georgia Secretary of State. For context, here's the black turnout for all recent elections:

-2008 presidential primary: 29.7%

-2006 general: 24.1%

-2006 state primary: 17.5%

-2004 general: 25.4%

-2004 state primary: 25.8%

-2004 presidential primary: 32.3%

The thing to remember about the 2004 presidential primary is that Republicans (mostly whites) didn't have a battle for the party's nomination so they didn't have a reason to show up. Other than that, Obama's candidacy produced the largest black turnout in recent elections.

The Journal-Constitution also noted that this year's Democratic presidential primary set a record for the percentage of voters who were black. So, it wasn't just that black turnout increased because Democrats generally were more motivated to show up -- black Democrats in particular voted in unusually large numbers.

However, there are plenty of reasons to question whether that feat is replicable for the general election.

In this year's presidential primaries in Georgia, 598,000 blacks voted. In the 2004 general election, 834,000 voted. Those stats raise the possibility that black turnout was high in the presidential primary because occasional voters -- the type of people who rarely vote except in presidential general elections -- showed up in unusually large numbers for the primary. For Obama to boost black turnout in November, he's probably going to have to bring new voters into the electorate, not just motivate existing ones. 

That wouldn't be easy. As political scientist Tom Schaller has pointed out, the idea that blacks don't vote in large numbers in the South is a misconception (emphasis his):

Let's be clear: According to Census Bureau estimates, in 2004 African Americans were 17.9 percent of age-eligible southerners (in the 11 former Confederate states) and they were--buckle-up here--17.9 percent of actual voters in 2004. That is proportionate, for starters. But when you consider that blacks are, on average, poorer and/or from a lower socioeconomic station than southern whites, it means that, controlling for status, blacks actually turn out at higher rates than comparable whites. Put another way, a middle class 40-year-old black plumber and husband and father of two is more likely to vote in the South than a comparable white plumber.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say that black turnout in November is 30%, as in the primary. Would that be enough to swing the state to Obama?

The answer is no -- not unless Obama is more successful at courting white Georgians than John Kerry.

The 2004 exit poll indicated that Kerry won 88% of the black vote in Georgia, but only 23% of the white vote. As a result, Bush won Georgia 58%-41%.

Let's say that Obama takes 90% of the black vote, 23% of the white vote and 50% of the remaining electorate. If blacks are 30% of the electorate, whites are 67% and others are 3% (others were 3.2% in 2004 according to the Secretary of State), that only gets him to 43.9% -- not even very close.

Those numbers demonstrate that, even in a state with the third largest black population as a proportion of the total population, increased black turnout can only do so much. It seems unlikely that solid red states will suddenly become swing states solely on the basis of more African-Americans showing up at the polls.

But, even if Obama doesn't win these states, the implications of increased black turnout for down-ballot races could still be significant. Plus, many swing states do have substantial African-American populations, including Virginia (19.6%), Florida (15.4%), Michigan (14.1%), Ohio (11.8%), Missouri (11.3%) and Pennsylvania (10.4%).

There's one more factor to consider in Georgia, however: Former Congressman Bob Barr is thinking about running for president as a Libertarian.

You could describe Barr's views as Ron Paul-lite. He's a small-government conservative who is against the Iraq War and critical of the Bush administration's record on civil liberties. Nationally, it's not clear to me whether he would take more votes from the Democrat or the Republican. He probably won't have much of an impact.

Many Georgians on the other hand know Barr as the conventional conservative (and former Clinton impeachment manager) who represented the state in Congress for eight years. In Georgia, I'd imagine that Barr would have more support than he'd have nationally and that his support would come disproportionately from Republicans.

As a relatively uneducated guess, let's say that the white vote goes McCain 65%, Obama 20%, Barr 15%, Obama still gets 90% of the black vote with Barr getting 1% and the new breakdown for the others is 45-45%, with Barr getting 10%.

The result: McCain, 47.6%, Obama, 41.8%, Barr, 10.7%. That's closer, but not close enough to truly be in play.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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