The 2016 election data is in and it’s pretty ugly for North Carolina Democrats. According to data released by Democracy North Carolina yesterday, their turnout in November was down 1.4% from 2012 while Republican turnout was up 2.5%. That’s what they call an enthusiasm gap and it offsets Democrats’ advantage in registration numbers. Even more troubling for Democrats, since 2008, Democrat turnout is down 3.5% while Republican turnout is up 3.8%. That’s an unsustainable trend for Democrats if they want to stay competitive in North Carolina.
More than 75% of registered Republicans voted compared to only 68.5% of registered Democrats. Sixty-three percent of unaffiliated voters showed up, an increase of 2.8% over 2012. Of the Democrats, African-American women were the highest voting block, showing up at 72.2%, but their numbers were down 4.4% from 2012. White Democratic women were the second strongest voting group, with a turnout of 71.6%, a 2.7% increase over 2012 turnout. Democrats’ biggest failure is with African-American men. Only 57% of them voted.
Dr. Michael Bitzer noted that almost 170,000 African-American voters who showed up in 2012 did not vote in 2016. Republicans lost almost as many, 165,000, mostly from urban areas. However, an additional 168,000 white Republican and unaffiliated voters voted in 2016 who were registered in 2012 but didn’t vote then. The Trump surge offset the loss of urban Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for the GOP presidential nominee.
A debate is raging in the Democratic Party about whether the party needs to reach out to white working class voters or just focus on turning out their base. I would argue that they will only succeed if they do both. The African-American men who stayed home in November aren’t carrying briefcases to work. They’re blue collar voters who don’t believe anybody represents them. They aren’t going to vote for the party that wants to dismantle the progress of the Civil Rights era but they don’t see Democrats as offering them much, either.
Even if those African-American voters had come out this year, they probably wouldn’t have made a significant difference in legislative or Congressional races. To win those seats back, Democrats will need to increase their share of white voters, too. Since they’re already winning college educated voters, it only makes sense that Democrats reach out to working class voters regardless of race.
In the post-World War II era, Democrats became the party of working class voters and the party of Civil Rights. They promoted access to education, worker protections, an increasing minimum wage, and a safety net to ensure that injury or age didn’t push people into poverty. At the same time, they stood up for protection against discrimination and broke down barriers that kept minorities out of the middle class, particularly in the South.
Today, Democrats are still the party that opposes discrimination but they’ve lost their way in helping working class families move up the economic ladder. Many African-American men are less concerned with job discrimination than job opportunities. Particularly in rural areas, Democrats have been no better than Republicans in mitigating the impact of trade agreements and immigration. Like their white counterparts, blue collar African-Americans worry that the influx of Hispanic workers are taking the few jobs still available to people with limited education.
If Democrats want to stay competitive in North Carolina, they’ll need to figure out how to address these concerns. If they do, they can both increase the turnout of African-American men and win over a few of the white working class voters that they’ve lost to Republicans. If they don’t, they’ll see their turnout numbers continue to dwindle and find themselves increasingly in the minority.