A few months ago, in the midst of the primary season, I wrote a post wondering about how black turnout might affect the general election. Having done a lot of reading on Chicago politics over the past few years, I was becoming convinced that the Obama campaign was using a playbook that had proven successful in its own backyard, 25 years prior.
In 1983, Chicago elected its first African American mayor, Harold Washington. The election of Washington was an arduous two step process. First, the reformist Washington campaign had to win a bruising three way primary against incumbent Mayor Jane Byrne and Richard Daley, Jr., son of the deceased former mayor (and current mayor). With Byrne being the Democratic machine candidate and Daley the namesake of the city’s most dominant political family, Washington’s candidacy succeeded largely due to massive increases in black registration, mobilization, and turnout. For example, between the 1979 and 1983 mayoral races, registration in Chicago’s majority black wards increased 30% (as opposed to only a 4% increase in the rest of the city). The final tally gave Washington 37%, Byrne 33%, and Daley 30%. While the racial dimension of the campaign was evident in the primary, the general election brought a whole new level of rancor. Whereas the city was long dominated by the Democratic machine, giving Republicans few chances to win citywide office, Washington’s place at the top of the ticket led large swaths of Democratic voters to cross party lines and support Bernard Epton. Many of the city’s Democratic machine leaders agitated against Washington’s bid, using tactics and language that was anything but subtle in their racial overtones--Epton's campaign slogan was "Before It's Too Late." Again, Washington had to rely on black turnout and mobilization (coupled with support from high income, high education level whites). In the general, Washington narrowly won with 51.4% of the vote. Again, black turnout was huge—75%!!
Writing in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s victory, University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters wrote:
…the Washington campaign illustrated that a black candidacy could bring formerly politically inactive people into the electoral process and could make politics take on a relevance and urgency for those who had previously seen little connection between elections and their own lives. It also showed that participation by people who usually opt out of the system could change election outcomes (PS, Summer 1983; p. 492).
Thus, coming into this year’s election season, the Obama campaign surely realized that black turnout would be an important, although certainly not definitive, determinant of their success. While the Obama campaign’s financial juggernaut has been unprecedented and his appeal to young and upscale white voters has been crucial, one can’t ignore the degree to which the black vote has been the backbone of the campaign. Given the delegate allocation formula used by the Democrats, Obama was able to take advantage of his near universal support among black voters to ensure that Hillary Clinton was unable to gain ground quickly, despite her victories in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. With the early date of the South Carolina primary (with its large black electorate) Obama’s campaign was given a boost heading toward the Super Tuesday blockbuster of contests. These early victories also sent a signal to black voters, as described by Walters above, that their participation could indeed determine the outcome of the race.
One consequence of Obama’s success in the primaries, which I’ve also written about, is that it placed many established African American politicians in a difficult position. Long allies of the Clintons, these members of Congress, mayors, and Democratic insiders failed to see the oncoming Obama phenomenon. In fact, several faced (and may in the future face) primary challenges as a result of their initial snubbing of Obama. For many, Hillary Clinton was the safe, and rational, pick. Here again, some parallels to Harold Washington become apparent. In his campaign against the Chicago Democratic machine, Washington broke from a number of black Chicago leaders who, by providing the machine with scores of black votes, received patronage, neighborhood power, and electoral security over the years. Writing about this tension between insurgent and establishment politicians, the Brookings Institutions’ Paul Peterson wrote:
Black political leaders nationally have many of the same difficulties that the Washington candidacy posed for black aldermen and committeemen in Chicago. If they support the problematic candidacy of an insurgent, all the past ties and connections with leading white political figures, from which many identifiable benefits flowed, would be endangered. A black candidacy that achieved only modest success could leave them politically isolated. But if they decide not to support a black insurgent who succeeds at mobilizing the black community, the close connections with white leaders would only appear to black constituents to be still another example of having “sold out.” Even as many black aldermen lost their seats to Washington’s supporters, so black mayors and congressmen who fail to support one of their own brothers for president become vulnerable to local challengers. (PS, Fall 1983; p. 716).
To add another layer, I came across an
Obama shrugs off the possibility of running for office. “Who knows?” he says. “But probably not immediately.” He smiles. “Was that a sufficiently politic ‘maybe’? My sincere answer is, “I’ll run if I feel I can accomplish more that way than agitating from the outside. I don’t know if that’s true right now. Let’s wait and see what happens in 1993. If politicians in place now and the city and state levels respond to African-American voters’ needs, we’ll gladly work with and support them. If they don’t, we’ll work to replace them. That’s the message I want Project Vote! to have sent.”
So how might we gauge whether any of this emphasis on registration and mobilization, especially among African-Americans, is paying off??? Over the past few days we’ve started to receive some data on the early voting that is taking place across a number of states, including key battlegrounds like Florida and North Carolina (see this great site from GMU’s Michael McDonald). What seems to be taking place is tremendous, and unprecedented, black turnout. As Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com has pointed out, the states with the biggest increases in early voting, compared to 2004, are those with large black populations. We’re also seeing early voting spikes in counties in Ohio with large numbers of African-American voters. Thus, while we’re expecting to see higher than normal turnout among all voters nationwide, the more interesting question is what gap will exist between white and black voters. In 2004 white turnout was roughly 65% while black turnout was about 60%. What happens if black turnout not only grows (perhaps to parity with white turnout) but maybe even surpasses that of whites in some places? Should that happen, then the math starts to get really interesting, electoral votes start going red to blue, and what might normally be a close election starts to move toward landslide territory.
Thus, as we approach election day it’s hard not to think that the groundwork for the Obama campaign was put in place well before he announced his candidacy in early 2007 and before his famous address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Rather, much of what we’re seeing materialize has its roots in longstanding efforts begun back in Chicago. Many commentators have looked to previous elections for parallels to what we’re seeing this year—Is 2008 like 1992? 1980? 1932?
Should Obama win next Tuesday, my vote goes not for a presidential race in our past, but rather a mayoral one--1983. The fact that some of this year’s participants were either involved in or influenced by that campaign should, perhaps, have gotten a lot more attention by a lot more people.