Most of the uncertainty surrounding the potential impact of the Black vote on the presidential election this year is focused on turnout. Although President Donald Trump's campaign has made efforts to reach out to Black voters, the historical record and current data show it is unlikely that the percentage of the Black vote going to Trump will vary much from the low percentages Republican presidential candidates have received in previous election cycles.
A key issue relating to the Black vote will be the percentage of eligible Black voters who turn out to vote. This could be of crucial importance in swing states where Black turnout could be a deciding factor in the election outcome.
The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research's compilation of voting data from previous presidential elections provides appropriate historical context. The Democratic candidate for president over the five presidential elections since 2000 has averaged 91% of the Black vote, with 8% on average going to the Republican candidate.
Presidential horse-race polling so far this year shows no indication of significant variation from this historical pattern. The recent Sept. 13-16 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found Biden leading Trump among Black voters by 90% to 5%. Gallup's aggregated data from polls conducted July 30-Aug. 12 and Aug. 31-Sept. 13 show Trump approval -- a rough surrogate for likelihood to vote for Trump -- at 11% among Black Americans, with disapproval at 87%. In a moment of hyperbole on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump promised that if elected president, he would get 95% of the Black vote in 2020, but in reality, it is highly unlikely that dramatic change in the underlying structure of presidential vote preferences among racial and ethnic subgroups will occur.
But we have seen variation in turnout among Black voters over recent elections. Estimates of Black turnout vary, depending on how it is calculated, but all sources show that it was significantly higher in the elections of 2008 and 2012, with Barack Obama on the ballot, than before or after. Pew Research, for example, reports that Black turnout was 57% in 2000, 65% in 2008, 67% in 2012, and then dropped to 60% in the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton faced Trump. This seven-percentage-point drop in turnout among Black voters between 2012 and 2016 hurt Clinton in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania -- states whose loss in turn ultimately cost her the Electoral College and the presidency. This year, two states with much higher Black populations than the national average -- Georgia (where Black Americans are 32% of the voting-eligible population) and North Carolina (22%) -- are considered toss-ups, meaning Black turnout could be a crucial factor in determining which way they go.
Biden Viewed Less Favorably Than Obama Among Black Americans
What factors will determine whether Black turnout this year will be closer to the two election years with Obama on the ballot, or 2016 with Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee? Biden obviously hopes for the former, in part because of his connection with Obama, having served as his vice president for eight years. And Obama will no doubt continue to endorse and campaign for Biden in this election, perhaps increasing Black Americans' enthusiasm for voting.
But available evidence suggests that Biden, while viewed favorably by Black Americans, does not enjoy the extraordinarily positive sentiments Obama received when he was campaigning. An aggregated Gallup sample from late July through mid-September shows Biden with a 75% favorable and 20% unfavorable rating among Black Americans, compared with Obama's consistent 90%+ favorable ratings among Black Americans in August, September and October 2008, during his initial presidential campaign. Gallup tracking in August and September 2016 showed Clinton with an average favorable rating of 71% among Black Americans as she campaigned for the presidency. Thus, Biden's current image among Black Americans is closer to Clinton's than to Obama's at comparable points in their campaigning, underscoring the challenge facing Biden as he attempts to replicate Obama's ability to bring out the Black vote.
Biden does have a presumed plus on his side in the person of his vice-presidential running mate, Kamala Harris, the first major-party Black vice-presidential candidate in U.S. history. Gallup's sample size of Black Americans in a recent poll measuring Harris' image is too small to allow precise estimates, but the data suggest that she has lower favorable and higher unfavorable ratings among Black Americans than Biden as of early September. This leaves open the question of Harris' ability to create enthusiasm and turnout among Black voters.
Minor Variations Across Black Subgroups
Men in the U.S. today are more likely than women to be Republican, and this skew holds to a limited degree among Black Americans. The differences are not huge: 19% Trump job approval among Black men, 11% among Black women. Trump job approval is also significantly lower among Black Americans 65 and older and among Black Americans with college educations than among other Black Americans. None of these differences are large, and the overwhelming majority of Black Americans disapprove of Trump, regardless of their demographic characteristics. Nevertheless, younger Black men without college educations may provide a greater challenge for Biden's campaign blandishments than other Black Americans. Looked at differently, older, college-educated Black women appear to be the target group with the highest potential for Biden.
The Impact of the Candidates' Positions on Key Issues
Black turnout could be affected by the candidates' positions on high-salience issues. Black Americans are consistently more likely than White Americans to mention that the No. 1 problem facing the nation is race and racism. Recent polling by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist shows that 84% of Black registered voters say Biden can better handle race relations (PDF download), compared with 9% who choose Trump. This perceptual edge provides Biden (and Harris) with an opportunity to increase Black voter turnout by emphasizing the policy actions and initiatives they would take to improve racial inequities, particularly by contrasting their approach with Trump's emphasis on restraining race protests from a law-and-order perspective.
Trump's presidential campaign emphasizes his positive stewardship of the economy, and this is an issue on which he consistently does better in polling against Biden than on other issues. But Black Americans overwhelmingly identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, and Democrats are much more negative than Republicans about the economy. Thus, it is not surprising to find that Black Americans' ratings of the economy are significantly lower than Americans' as a whole in Gallup polls conducted from late July to early August and from late August to early September. How much these negative views of the nation's economic situation could motivate Black Americans to turn out and vote for a change in presidential leadership is unknown at this point.
I recently explored the possible impact of abortion on Black Americans and the coming presidential election. The issue is complex, because Black Americans are more religious than White Americans, and religiosity is, in general, negatively correlated with support for abortion rights. My analysis showed that Black Democrats are indeed less supportive of abortion rights than non-Black Democrats. Given Biden's public support for abortion rights, could the abortion issue serve as a damper on Black voter enthusiasm? My conclusion: "Considering the greater diversity of views on abortion among Black Americans than among Democrats more generally, it is at least within the realm of possibility that Black voters who are personally anti-abortion will be negatively affected by Biden's abortion position." But we have few indications so far that abortion is going to become a major issue for Black voters.
Several news commentators and reports have discussed the possibility that Trump may overperform among Black voters this year. His campaign has created a "Black Voices for Trump" organization, and Trump is campaigning in Georgia and North Carolina partly to attempt to increase his support among Black voters. There are, however, few indications in polling data that Trump has been successful in changing the historical pattern by which Black voters overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate in presidential years. The challenge for the Biden campaign lies in pushing Black voters' enthusiasm (and, hence, turnout) closer to the historical records achieved by Obama in 2008 and 2012 than the lower levels seen in 2016. Three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate loom, providing the final major opportunity for the campaigns to have a meaningful impact on the Black vote in 2020.