The New York Times July 18, 2014
Southern black voters don’t usually play a decisive role in national elections. They were systematically disenfranchised for 100 years after the end of the Civil War. Since the days of Jim Crow, a fairly unified white Southern vote has often determined the outcome of elections.
This November could be different. Nearly five decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, black voters in the South are poised to play a pivotal role in this year’s midterm elections. If Democrats win the South and hold the Senate, they will do so because of Southern black voters.
The timing — 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and 49 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act — is not entirely coincidental. The trends increasing the clout of black voters reflect a complete cycle of generational replacement in the post-Jim Crow era. White voters who came of age as loyal Democrats have largely died off, while the vast majority of black voters have been able to vote for their entire adult lives — and many have developed the habit of doing so.
This year’s closest contests include North Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia. Black voters will most likely represent more than half of all Democratic voters in Louisiana and Georgia, and nearly half in North Carolina. Arkansas, another state with a large black population, is also among the competitive states.
Southern black voters have already made their mark on this year’s midterm elections. Last month, Senator Thad Cochran defeated a Tea Party challenger with the help of a surge in black turnout in a Republican run-off in Mississippi.
Black voters in the South have played an important role in a handful of federal elections since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed. In 1976, Jimmy Carter won the presidency with the help of black voters in the Deep South. Democrats also won many competitive Senate seats in the South in 1998. Black voters have even played a decisive role in some states that will be crucial this November: They represented about half of Senator Mary Landrieu’s supporters in Louisiana 2002 and 2008; and in North Carolina in 2008, nearly half of President Obama’s supporters were black.
But there has not been a year since Reconstruction when a party has depended so completely on black voters, in so many Southern states, in such a close national contest. President Carter, for instance, won by a comfortable margin in most of Dixie, with strong support among white voters. In 1998, Senate control was not at stake, and Mr. Obama’s 2008 victory in North Carolina was icing on the cake.
If Democrats win this November, black voters will probably represent a larger share of the winning party’s supporters in important states than at any time since Reconstruction. Their influence is not just a product of the Senate map. It also reflects the collapse in Southern white support for Democrats, an increase in black turnout and the reversal of a century-long trend of blackoutmigration from the South.
State-level Democrats performed fairly well among Southern white voters in the decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. A majority of white voters were still self-identified Democrats who formed their partisan allegiances when white supremacist Democrats ruled Dixie. As a result, Southern Democrats did not usually depend on black voters, who generally turned out at lower rates than white voters.
That era has come to an end. Today, the overwhelming majority of voters, white and black alike, reached voting age after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Southern politics are now defined by the post-Civil Rights era: The old generation of Southern white Democrats has almost entirely departed the electorate, leaving white voters overwhelmingly Republican. Mr. Obama won about 15 percent of white voters in the Deep South in 2012.
Democrats lamented low black turnout for decades, but Southern black turnout today rivals or occasionally exceeds that of white voters. That’s in part because black voters, for the first time, have largely been eligible to vote since they turned 18. They have therefore had as many opportunities as their white counterparts to be targeted by campaigns, mobilized by interest groups or motivated by political causes.
Mr. Obama is part of the reason for higher black turnout, which surpassed white turnout nationally in the 2012 presidential election, according to the census. But black turnout had been increasing steadily, even before Mr. Obama sought the presidency. In 1998, unexpectedly high black turnout allowed Democrats to win a handful of contests in the Deep South; in 2002, Ms. Landrieu won a Senate runoff with a surge in black turnout.
The Supreme Court’s decision last year to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act unleashed a wave of new laws with a disparate impact on black voters, including cuts in early voting and photo-identification requirements.
These laws will disenfranchise an unknown number of eligible voters, but probably not so many as to have a big effect on election results. In Georgia, where a voter ID law has been in place since 2007, the black turnout rate has increased to nearly match that of whites.
The post-Jim Crow era also led to the end and eventual reversal of the Great Migration, the exodus of blacks from the South to escape racist laws and seek better economic opportunities. The South was home to about 90 percent of the nation’s African-Americans until the beginning of the 20th century. By 1970, 53 percent of blacks lived there.
This trend reversed in the decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, 57 percent of black Americans live in the South; more than one million black Southerners today were born in the Northeast.
Nowhere has the remigration done more to improve Democratic chances than in Georgia, where Democrats have a chance to win an open Senate seat this November. Since 2000, as the black population has risen, the share of registered voters who are white has dropped to 59 percent, from 72 percent.
The Democratic nominee in Georgia is Michelle Nunn, a candidate symbolic of generational change in her own right. She is the daughter of Sam Nunn, a conservative Democratic former senator from rural, downstate Georgia who was first elected in 1972. If Ms. Nunn wins this November, it will be with only a handful of the rural, Southern white voters who adored her father.
The state’s growing black population will give her a chance to win with less than one-third of the white vote, a tally that would have ensured defeat for Democrats just a few years ago. Her pathway to victory would be unrecognizable to her father, who never won re-election with less than 80 percent of the vote.