Ground and pound


Interesting fact I learned while researching this post: West Virginia is less black than Wisconsin. (Photo by Matt Dell)

I spent the summer busy with travel and research, and let the blog go on hiatus. Well, fall classes start today, so now’s a great time to get back to procrastinating thinking out loud.

USA Today and Suffolk University released an interesting survey of “unlikely” voters a few days ago, which has gotten quite a bit of attention. It’s worth noting that their methodology is unclear in the report — they’ve got a sample of 800, but was that simply culled from a larger, general sample that also included some number of likely voters? At any rate, the big takeaway is that unlikely voters strongly favor Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, though about one-fifth say they would vote for a third-party candidate if they were to vote. This is perhaps the strongest evidence yet for the importance of turnout to Obama’s chances. In 2008, he got much bigger than usual turnout from traditionally low-turnout groups, most notably young adults and African-Americans. Many of these voters are probably still turning up as “unlikely” in typical polling models.

But a deeper look inside the data shows just where the Obama ground campaign is needed the most: convincing overconfident supporters that their vote is needed. Three-quarters of “unlikely” black voters expect Obama to win, but almost all say they would vote if they felt it could swing the election. Now, this probably shouldn’t be taken too literally, since no one really expects the election to come down to one vote, but it is worth thinking about how and where energized black turnout to have the most impact. Of the ten states with the highest proportion of African-Americans, six are solid red, two are solid blue, and North Carolina and Virginia are up for grabs. These were big Obama takeaways in 2008, in part because of black turnout. Florida is number 11 on that list, and carrying those three swing states would basically clinch the election.

The assumption in 2008 was that the Obama campaign had a great turnout operation, but I’m not sure if anyone knows whether that’s true or not — his candidacy certainly energized a lot of black voters on its own, but that doesn’t mean the campaign necessarily did anything extra-special to get them out to vote. If the campaign has data similar to what this poll shows, they would be well served by targeting black voters now, not with persuasive appeals that are largely unnecessary, but with sobering reminders that the election isn’t over until it’s over.

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