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The Pandemic and Black Voter Turnout

A drop in black voter turnout was a factor in Donald Trump’s 2016 win. Will COVID-19—which is disproportionately killing African Americans—bring more black voters to the polls?
April 20, 2020
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Food Bank For New York City provides food and other essentials for healthcare workers on April 14, 2020 in New York City. Food Bank For New York City and NYC Health + Hospitals have joined forces to provide food and emergency grocery bags containing food, beverages and hygiene products to healthcare workers fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis in New York. Food Bank will provide deliveries to 11 acute care hospitals across the city for healthcare workers who may have little time to buy groceries.(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank For New York City)

One of the key reasons Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election was a drop in black voter turnout. Black turnout “declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election,” according to a Pew analysis, “falling to 59.6% in 2016 after reaching a record-high 66.6% in 2012. The 7-percentage-point decline from the previous presidential election is the largest on record for blacks.”

People have debated why this happened—whether it was because Barack Obama wasn’t on the ticket for the first time in eight years or because voters really just disliked Hillary Clinton—but the large number of African Americans staying home had a clear effect, particularly in big cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, that gave Trump close victories in states that many observers thought he might lose.

Turnout among African Americans could be a critical factor in deciding this year’s presidential election, too—and the COVID-19 crisis may have an effect on it. Blacks are being infected and dying from the coronavirus at significantly higher rates than the general population—and it is happening in those very cities where black turnout was notably lower in 2016. Which raises a very provocative question: Will higher death rates from the pandemic lead black voters to have higher turnout rates to vote against Trump in November?

In some cases, the racial disparity in COVID-19 cases to date can be seen in states and localities Trump won handily in 2016. Blacks make up 32 percent of the total population of Louisiana, but they account for 59 percent of the COVID-19 deaths in the state so far. But Louisiana hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1996. Kentucky, too, hasn’t been won by a Democrat since 1996. There, blacks are 8 percent of the population but 21 percent of the COVID-19 deaths. In Chicago, they’re 30 percent of the population but 72 percent of the COVID-19 deaths.

But some of the states where the disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates for African Americans have been happening are states where low black turnout in 2016 helped Trump win. In Michigan, for example—where, as we’ll discuss further in a moment, Trump barely eked out a victory in 2016—blacks make up about 14 percent of the state’s population, but about 40 percent of the coronavirus deaths and 33 percent of the overall cases so far.

The Trump administration is admitting the disparities are real. “The chronic burden of medical ills is likely to make people of color especially less resilient to the ravages of COVID-19 and it’s possible—in fact, likely—the burden of social ills is also contributing,” said Surgeon General Jerome Adams at a White House press briefing on April 10. According to a CDC analysis published on April 8, nearly 90 percent of the hospitalized patients identified in a large statistical sample “had one or more underlying conditions, the most common being obesity, hypertension, chronic lung disease, diabetes mellitus, and cardiovascular disease.”

How will this affect the election? Very simply: If African Americans didn’t feel they had a reason to show up in big numbers in 2016, these elevated coronavirus death rates might cause them to show up in 2020. But as a matter of electoral math, this will only be significant in certain areas.

These are the states that Trump won that have big urban areas getting hit hard by the coronavirus (to date): Michigan (16 Electoral College votes), Pennsylvania (20), Wisconsin (10), Florida (29), and Georgia (16). All are considered to be in play this time around, and it is likely the Democrats will use the coronavirus deaths among African Americans in their presidential campaign.

Let’s discuss each of these states in turn.

Michigan

Michigan has had more coronavirus deaths to date than any state except New York and New Jersey (nearly 2,400 at last count), and the Detroit area is the hotspot. Wayne County is about 40 percent African American. Among the three counties in the metro area—Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb—there have been nearly 2,000 deaths and 24,000 cases.

Trump won the state in 2016 by about 11,000 votes, less than a quarter of a percent of the state’s total votes. The lower turnout in these three counties hit Clinton hard: she got 217,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2008, and about 114,000 less in 2012.

Georgia

The Atlanta metro region has had 208 deaths and 6,396 cases. Of the five counties included—Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Clayton, and Gwinnett—all of them have black populations of more than 25 percent, and three out of the five are above 40 percent. The five counties were all won by Clinton, but their decline in black turnout between 2012 and 2016 was a huge drop, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office: In Fulton County, 68.5 percent of black registered voters actually voted in 2012, but in 2016 only 48.4 percent did. Cobb County black turnout fell from 73.8 to 58.2 percent. In Gwinnett County, black turnout dropped from 79.21 to 58.5 percent.

Trump won the state by about 212,000—a 5-percentage-point lead over Clinton—but there has been a big push on voter registration and turnout by the state’s Democratic party since the 2018 midterms. (That was the election cycle, you might recall, in which Stacey Abrams, a Democrat and an African American, came within 55,000 votes of winning the governorship.) If black voters come in at a 70 percent turnout this year in just these five counties in and around Atlanta, about 150,000 more black votes would be added to the mix.

Daniel Dawes, director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse College’s School of Medicine in Atlanta, pinned today’s racial health disparities on America’s history of segregation and policies. “If we do not take an appreciation for the historical context and the political determinants, then we’re only merely going to nibble around the edges of the problem of inequities,” he said in an interview last week after seeing the CDC racial numbers.

Wisconsin

Milwaukee is getting hit hard by the virus. With a population of about 950,000, Milwaukee County has had 125 deaths and 2,150 cases. The death case number seems small, but is comparable to the deaths in the Chicago area (877 in Cook County) as a percentage of overall population.

Trump won Wisconsin by just 23,000 votes, and Clinton got 39,000 fewer votes in Milwaukee County (with a black population of 27 percent) than Obama got in 2012. Turnout is a big reason for that drop: according to Marquette University Law School research, in 2012, 78 percent of black registered voters showed up at the polls in Milwaukee County, while in 2016, only 49 percent did. “Many think much of the decline in turnout by black voters in Milwaukee was simply Obama not being on the ballot,” says Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette. “But it wasn’t exactly a dislike of Clinton, but a lack of enthusiasm for her.”

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania was a tight win for Trump as well; he took the state by about 44,000 votes out of nearly 6 million cast. The Philadelphia area had a slight turnout decline in 2016, but with Biden running (he’s from Scranton), the large number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Philly may bring more people to the polls. Philadelphia County (44 percent African American) has had 365 deaths and 9,214 cases, with the four nearest suburban counties in the state having an additional 385 deaths and 8,136 cases.

“Look at all the structural issues around, all these health care inequalities all these lower income jobs, it tends to impact individuals and neighborhoods of color a lot more than it does other neighborhoods,” Philadelphia councilman Darrell Clarke said on April 9. “We have individuals that are working in these jobs in retail, in super markets and stores around that are still allowed to be open. . . . Those people have to deal with the public on a consistent basis, right? They are more likely to come into contact with someone who may be infected than other people.”

Florida

Florida is very unpredictable, politically speaking. In an April 12 op-ed, the Miami Herald asked this question in its headline regarding how the governor was handling the coronavirus outbreak: “We’re looking like ‘Flori-duh’ again, Gov. DeSantis. Any idea how that happened?

Gov. Ron DeSantis has been accused of not knowing basic info about coronavirus (he said no one under 25 had died from it), defining “essential” services oddly (WWE professional wrestling has been deemed an essential service in Florida—alongside hospitals and fire departments), and following Trump’s lead by pushing the drug hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus cure (“I reached out to physicians and just, you know, asked them, ‘hey, what’s the deal with this?’”)

But lost in a lot of the confusing Florida leadership discussions is the fact that Greater Miami is a hotspot for COVID-19. In the three counties in the Miami area—Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach—there have been 443 deaths and 15,429 cases. All three counties are also “majority minority” counties, so Trump will have to appeal to them to keep Florida and its 29 electoral votes on his side of the ledger. Triple-digit deaths on his watch does not help. Florida’s health department does not calculate the disease’s impact within racial groups with much exactness, but a recent analysis found that African Americans made up 24 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations and 26 percent of deaths in Miami-Dade County. The county’s population is 18 percent black.

One final thought. Florida governor DeSantis is often viewed as a Trump acolyte in how he has handled the coronavirus, and that can be good or bad. Right now, it appears to be bad. FiveThirtyEight assembled the polling data for 15 governors and how they were viewed by voters before and after the pandemic started. They found that most Americans liked how their governors were handling the crisis: 14 of the 15 saw their approval ratings go up by double digits.

The one governor who didn’t see his approval ratings rise? Ron DeSantis. His approval rating went down by 7 points in the state. Trump’s campaign might want to pay attention.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.