What to make of Joe Biden’s apparent racial demagoguery this week in Danville, Virginia? Team Obama dismissed it as having nothing to do with race, but this is likely wrong: Biden certainly seemed to be referencing slavery, was doing so in a Southern dialect, and speaking in a city that is roughly split between whites and African Americans.
Why would he do this? Isn’t the black vote already in the bag?
Yes and no. Yes, insofar as Obama will win an overwhelming victory among African Americans in 2012, just as all previous Democrats have done since 1936.
But there is a danger for the president: Obama’s path to reelection depends not simply on doing as well as previous Democrats with African Americans, but doing much better. Doing only as well as John Kerry, Al Gore, or Bill Clinton with the black vote would imperil Obama’s chances in November.
We can quantify this by examining how Obama’s improvement with the black vote in 2008 relative to John Kerry boosted his overall margin.
Overall, Obama did better than Kerry by about 5 points because he improved with all racial and ethnic groups. Nevertheless, his improvement with African Americans provided a very significant boost all by itself.
John Kerry won 88 percent of the black vote in 2004, which was 11 percent of the total electorate. That means 9.7 percent of the electorate in 2004 was African Americans who voted for Kerry.
Barack Obama won 95 percent of the black vote in 2008, which was 13 percent of the total electorate. That means that 12.4 percent of the electorate in 2008 was African Americans who voted for Obama.
So, Obama’s superior performance just among African Americans raised his total share of the vote by 2.7 percent relative to Kerry.
We can isolate the effect of Obama’s improved turnout among African Americans in 2008, to see the extent to which it enlarged his coalition in key swing states:
Note that Ohio and Florida are shaded in blue. This is because if Obama had done only as well with the black vote as Kerry in these states, he would have lost them.
The point of this is not to argue that Obama is doomed in Florida and Ohio. Far from it! Instead, it’s to illustrate that his election chances once again hinge on convincing some African Americans who do not normally vote to vote for him, and persuading some other African Americans who usually vote Republican to vote for him.
There is no guarantee this will happen. The latest Rasmussen poll of likely voters finds Romney pulling in 9 percent of African American support, and African Americans making up 12 percent of the total electorate. If that turns out to be the case in November, Obama would still do better than Kerry, but about 1.5 points worse than he did in 2008, taking into account the black vote alone.
The vital context here is Obama’s decline among white voters. This week, the Rasmussen poll finds him winning the support of just 35 percent of likely white voters, compared to 43 percent support from whites in 2008. Obama might be able to make some of this deficit up with an improvement in the Hispanic vote, but liberal pundits have been overstating its importance for a decade. In the last 10 years, the Hispanic share of the electorate has increased by only about 1 percent, and Republicans have consistently won at least 30 percent of that vote.
So, Obama really needs African Americans to come through for him about strongly as they did in 2008. Right now, that looks like a questionable proposition, which may help explain Biden’s remarks this week
Moving forward, we should expect more of the same from the Democrats. In 2008, it was “hope and change” that brought African Americans out in record numbers to back President Obama. This year, such rhetoric would obviously ring hollow, so the Obama-Biden Team is apparently hoping that fear mongering will have the same effect.
Perhaps the historical lesson comes from the James Byrd Jr. ad the NAACP ran against George W. Bush in 2000. Bill Clinton was once commemorated as the “first black president,” but he nevertheless signed two major pieces of legislation that were met with mixed-to-negative reactions in the black community, welfare reform and the crime bill. Meanwhile, George W. Bush was actively courting black pastors in the hopes of raising the GOP vote among African Americans in the key swing states. Enter the NAACP Voter Fund, which picked a fight over hate crimes legislation thanks to two highly incendiary ads against the then-Texas governor.
And on Election Day 2000 Al Gore won 91 percent of the two-party vote from African Americans, compared to 88 percent by Bill Clinton four years prior.
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.