Skip to main content

Historic milestone for African-American voters in 2012

By Cornell Belcher, CNN Contributor
May 9, 2013 -- Updated 1627 GMT (0027 HKT)
Residents in Harlem celebrate Barack Obama`s first election as president November 4, 2008, in New York City.
Residents in Harlem celebrate Barack Obama`s first election as president November 4, 2008, in New York City.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Census report confirms African-American turnout rate exceed white turnout in 2012
  • Cornell Belcher says the fact is a huge milestone in the story of enfranchising African Americans
  • Will high turnout persist after Barack Obama leaves office?
  • Belcher: If African-Americans see power of the ballot to effect change, turnout will stay high

Editor's note: Cornell Belcher, a CNN contributor, was the Democratic National Committee's pollster under Chairman Howard Dean in 2005 and worked on the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. Follow him on Twitter: @cornellbelcher

(CNN) -- "But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support the government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag, fight for the government, he knows enough to vote ... "

-- Frederick Douglass ("What the Black Man Wants," 1865)

Yet another milestone of great American historical importance has come to pass with embarrassingly little tribute. And much like the election of President Barack Obama, many of us also thought we would never live to see this racial ceiling broken.

Cornell Belcher
Cornell Belcher

But unlike the election and re-election of the first black president, the media has paid remarkably little notice to news that might well have more impact on the political trajectory of this country over the next decade than the election of a single president.

According to a new Census Bureau report, "In 2012, blacks voted at a higher rate (66.2%) than non-Hispanic whites (64.1%) for the first time since the Census Bureau started publishing voting rates by the eligible citizenship population in 1996."

Now, given the innumerable battles to secure this most important right of democracy -- from the blood-soaked battlefields of the Civil War to the halls of Congress and courts, to the strife-torn streets of the Civil Rights era -- few things in our collective political history has borne so heavy a toll on our democracy as the enfranchisement of the African-American.

That the group for which so many hurdles have been thrown upon to block the vote has for the first time become the group most likely to vote is something like a big deal.

Over a century ago, in the final days of the Civil War and of President Abraham Lincoln's administration, Congress passed the 13th Amendment. And on this past November 6, our first African American president, hailing from the state of Illinois and a Lincoln devotee, rode to victory on the power of an expanding black electorate.

It is the sum of all hopes and all fears given birth by black enfranchisement. Those who feared the black vote from the very beginning -- those architects of Jim Crow -- understood that it could give birth to transcending possibilities that were once unimaginable, such as the electing of a black guy with a name like Obama as president.

Unfortunately, the battle to minimize the impact of African-Americans increased participation is already underway -- and it's both typical and predictable.

Demographer William Frey from the Brookings Institution, who did a study on the subject for the Associated Press, asserts Mitt Romney would be president had the 2012 turnout looked more like it did in 2004. Well duh. It was our job to make sure it didn't look like 2004.

And Nate Cohn writes in the New Republic that Frey's calculations are flawed, but yet still manages to draw the erroneous conclusion that regardless of whether or not there's been an increase in the black electorate, higher turnout by African-Americans was not responsible for Obama's victory.

Soooo, regardless of garnering the lowest share of the white vote in a competitive presidential race in modern history, Obama could have won without expanding the black share of the electorate ? This debate is hard to understand.

Despite losing whites in Virginia by an even larger margin in 2012 than 2008, by a staggering 24 points, the black vote really doesn't make any difference?

In 2008, Obama won Ohio by 4 points (51.2% to 47.2%), and the drop in Democratic support among whites from 2008 to 2012 was 5 points.

Nevertheless, the president remained victorious because of an increase in support among black voters, who increased their share of the electorate from 11% to 15%, resulting in a 2-point victory (50.1% to 48.2%). Similar patterns can be seen in other battleground states. But even in many of the so-called reliable blue states such as New Jersey, for example, Obama's white share of support dropped from 2008 -- losing white voters there by 13 points in 2012.

So yeah, I can see the logic in arguments against the importance of the black vote share. GOP pollsters, keep using the same turnout models that you used in 2012; it will be fine. You didn't get it wrong -- the electorate did.

At a time when the black electorate is lighting the way and giving new energy to the quintessential Democratic value of participation and empowering the memory and sacrifices of our forefathers (who fought wars in the name of democracy while not being granted it here, who marched and where beaten and attacked with fire hoses and police dogs for the right to vote), the last thing we need is a media brawl over arcane statistics casting doubt on the achievements of ordinary voters as they blaze a trail that that has been in the making since 1865.

Now, of course, the question is will this higher voter turnout last beyond Obama being on the ticket?

To say I'm hopeful would be a lie. The obstacles are many: a Republican Party that instead of believing in competing in a free market of ideas thinks the best way to compete is by manipulating what the marketplace looks like through voter ID laws and other restrictions, and then there is the self-serving apathy of a Democratic Party consulting cabal whose ol' boy establishment class is almost as dangerously entrenched and insular as that of the Republicans.

However, we are at a watershed period of political history where African-Americans have participated at higher rates than others in the presidential election and by doing so changed political reality in a country historically torn by racial strife, making the impossible possible.

If the African-American community also sees the power of the ballot to overcome other historical obstacles such as entrenched poverty, widening wealth, education gaps and safer streets where it's not as easy for a criminal to get a gun as it is to buy a cigarette, then this expansion of its voting power will be a more permanent fixture on the political scene. And it will be a fixture that politicians of both parties will need to better pursue.

Candidate Obama often said it wasn't about him on the campaign trail going back to 2008; let's see how well the African-American voter was listening.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Cornell Belcher.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT