Polls showing Hillary Clinton with a massive lead over Donald Trump are based on the dubious assumption that black voters will turn out for a white woman in 2016 as enthusiastically as they cast historic votes for the first black president in 2008.
Black turnout set record highs eight years ago and then again in 2012 when their turnout was higher than whites for the first time ever. But pollsters in 2016 may be discounting the extent to which blacks were motivated by the opportunity to voting for Barack Obama, a review from The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group suggests.
Polls can be influenced as much by the assumptions pollsters make about the demographic makeup of turnout as they are by the actual answers people give when asked about their voting preferences. In the swing state of Virginia, there is evidence that polls favoring Clinton could go the other way if more realistic assumptions about black turnout are used.
Blacks make up 19 percent of Virginia’s population and they cast 20 percent of the votes in that state in 2012, voting overwhelmingly for Obama’s second term. Most pollsters of the state think that blacks will vote at the same rate in 2016. The number is especially high since one in four black men in Virginia is a felon and can’t vote.
Roanoke, Christopher Newport, and the Times Picayune polls all assume black turnout of 20 percent in Virginia for 2016. The PPP and CBS/YouGov surveys have it at 19 percent. A September Quinnipiac University poll had it at 20 percent.
An October poll by Emerson College was used to push the narrative that Republican nominee Donald Trump was falling far behind Democrat Hillary Clinton. But the turnout model used by Emerson pollsters assumed blacks would make up even more than 20 percent of votes in Virginia.
The poll found that Clinton was leading Trump in the state by three percentage points. L2political.com, which sells voter data, puts the number of active registered black voters at 14.7 percent. The disparity is enough to flip the results of the poll from Clinton to Trump.
The day the Emerson results were published, the Trump campaign reportedly pulled many resources out of Virginia, where Republicans have traditionally been competitive, because the polls made it seem like a losing battle.
The current situation in Virginia recalls the state’s notorious 2014 Senate race in which bad polling turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy as Democrat Sen. Mark Warner sought re-election against Republican Ed Gillespie. The RealClearPolitics average of polls just before election day had Warner up by 9.7 percent.
Roanoke College had Warner up by 12 points, and CBS News/New York Times and the University of Mary Washington had him up 10 points. A September 2014 poll from Christopher Newport University, a taxpayer-funded college, had Warner up by 22 points. Hampton University, a historically black college, announced that it had conducted a poll in the race, then mysteriously never released it.
State Republican officials had stopped running ads for Gillespie and many GOP voters stayed home, thinking the race was a foregone conclusion. Warner won, but by less than 1 percent. A shift of only a few thousand votes would have tipped the scales in Gillespie’s favor.
“I want an investigation of the polls in Virginia,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said after the election.
The New York Times ascribed the huge polling miss to turnout in Democratic areas being lower than the pollsters anticipated.
The narrative of Clinton leading Trump by margins slightly larger than the three-point margin of error has been dominant since last summer’s nomination conventions, but some pollsters and politicos are beginning to acknowledge that their assumptions about black turnout were incorrect.
Early voting indicates that black voters are voting less. It also shows that whites are casting more early votes than in 2012 in critical states like North Carolina and Ohio. In Virginia, majority-black areas like Portsmouth and Hampton Roads have the lowest early voting numbers.
Quinnipiac lowered its black turnout estimate from 20 percent in its September poll to 16 percent in its most recent one. Quinnipiac did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment on its rationale. (In a press release, Quinnipiac noted that regardless of how high or low Democratic turnout is, poll results are also influenced by the fact that many Republicans don’t support Trump.)
RMG’s Oct. 30 poll put black turnout at a more conservative 15 percent and found the race to be far closer than the others, with Clinton up by only four points.
It would be possible for blacks to vote in fewer numbers than 2012 but still vote at higher rates than their portion of the population if huge numbers of whites stay home because they are disgusted by both candidates. Still, even if registering in 2008 or 2012 lowered the barrier to participation in 2016, the dramatic, sustained increase predicted by some pollsters seems to risk misinterpreting the cause of blacks’ enthusiasm in the Obama elections.
In Virginia in 2016, urban and majority-black areas like Portsmouth and Richmond have the lowest early voting numbers, decreasing by as much as 30 percent compared to this point in 2012. Meanwhile, in non-black areas, early voting is up, including by 50 percent in heavily-populated Northern Virginia, and 21 percent in the coal country of Southwest Virginia.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe has battled to increase black turnout by restoring the voting rights of felons, a move that was partially blocked and partially successful. Felons’ numbers could easily tip a race like the 2014 Senate contest.
The Washington Post reported that when asked what the effect would be for his longtime close friend Hillary Clinton, he said “honestly, I haven’t thought about it” and that he had “literally no idea” how they would vote.
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