Black vote gaining power in Tennessee, U.S.

9:14 AM, May 9, 2013   |    comments
Charles Kimbrough, a minister who worked on get-out-the vote efforts in Nashville, says the right to vote is resonating with blacks. / Samuel M. Simpkins / File / The Tennessean
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Blacks voted in greater proportion than whites - both nationwide and in Tennessee - during the 2012 election, helping carry President Barack Obama to a second term.

Data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau show that African-Americans, as a group, were more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have cast a ballot in the November vote for president.

The same phenomenon could be found across much of the South and in Tennessee, where the Census Bureau estimates black participation outstripped white voting by more than 6 percentage points.

Many black voters came out to re-elect the nation's first African-American president. But data also show the participation gap between white and black voters has, for the most part, been narrowing for decades, suggesting the Obama bump may not be an aberration.

"(Obama's victory) was bigger than a lot of people expected, particularly because Republicans were making assumptions about turnout that were just wrong," said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

The Census Bureau estimates that 17.8 million blacks, about 66 percent of the nation's black citizenry, voted in the 2012 election. Nearly 1.7 million more blacks voted in 2012 than in 2008, when turnout among African-Americans was seen as one of Obama's keys to victory.

Meanwhile, turnout among non-Hispanic whites fell by 2 million to 64 percent, the Census Bureau found. Non-Hispanic whites were the only group to vote in fewer numbers in 2012.

The Census Bureau based its analysis on survey data. The differences fell outside the margins of error.

The trend appears to have been similar in Tennessee. Black participation rose to 61 percent in 2012 from 59 percent in 2008. White participation declined slightly, to 55 percent in 2012 from 56 percent in 2008.

As they did elsewhere, blacks in Tennessee are believed to have voted for Obama over Republican nominee Mitt Romney by an overwhelming margin. But with white voters outnumbering blacks 5 to 1 in Tennessee, Romney carried the state by more than 20 percentage points.

The surge in black turnout shows the growing importance of minority voters, Geer said. Not only are non-whites growing as a share of the population, they also might turn out in greater numbers for some candidates.

Democrats capitalized on that dynamic in 2008 and 2012. Republicans might be able to do so in 2016 by recalibrating their policy positions, especially if they were to nominate a Latino, Geer said.

But the race of the candidate may not be the only factor. Republican messaging and policies leading up to the 2012 election also appear to have prompted more blacks to go to the polls.

Many blacks were angered by GOP rhetoric toward Obama, particularly attacks on his health care reform plan and calls for him to prove his citizenship, said Charles Kimbrough, an African-American minister who worked on get-out-the-vote efforts in Nashville.

Some blacks also were upset about Tennessee's new voter identification requirement, likening it to past efforts to suppress the black vote.

"I think there were several reasons that caused people to vote," he said, "and, of course, the right to vote is one of those things. ... We're going to stand for equal justice."

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