On the economy, many black voters see little difference between GOP, Dems

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. AP

A new study suggests that Democrats can re-energize African-American voters even if President Barack Obama isn’t on the party’s ticket. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

The study, conducted by AFL-CIO affiliate Working America, analyzed why the black turnout in Ohio plummeted between 2012 and 2016, when election participation among African-American adults slipped from 72 percent to 62 percent. The drop — not just in Ohio but nationwide — was partially responsible for Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump, especially in upper Midwest battlegrounds, such as Wisconsin and Michigan.

"If black voter turnout remains depressed in 2018, it will doom Democrats’ chances in Ohio’s upcoming elections for the U.S. Senate, governor and state legislature," the study said.

In findings released Tuesday, the study showed that only 8 percent of African-Americans interviewed in the state thought Obama’s absence explained the lack of enthusiasm; 46 percent blamed a dislike of both Clinton and Trump.

"Even people who liked and voted for Clinton said there were flaws with the candidate and her campaign," the study said.

Some of the assessments of Clinton were blunt: The study recounted one Columbus resident who said "the air goes right out the room" every time Clinton speaks.

The analysis from Working America did not rely on a traditional poll or focus group. Instead, canvassers conducted "front-porch focus groups" with middle- and low-income African-American households in Columbus and Whitehall, Ohio, from June 19 to June 30. The interviews included men and women who did and didn’t vote.

Its conclusions were not uniformly pessimistic: It surmises, in fact, that Democrats can replicate previous turnout highs through aggressive voter outreach and bold economic policies.

But reinvigorating this voter bloc first requires Democrats to shake its deep economic pessimism. Nearly half of black voters said they were somewhat or very concerned about their personal economic future, while just 33 percent said they were somewhat or very confident about it.

The outlook is even more dire when asked about the broader black community: 60 percent of respondents said they were worried about its economic future. Just 22 percent said they were confident.

"The conversations we had with working-class African-American voters in central Ohio are a wake-up call for Democrats," the study said. "Nearly a decade after the 2008 recession, many black voters say they’re still struggling economically."

More alarmingly for Democrats is nearly half of these voters, 48 percent, said it didn’t make a difference to their economic well-being if a Republican or Democrat was in office.

Still, Democratic lawmakers and candidates have an opening to reach black voters. Only 34 percent of them identify with the "resistance," the name many liberal activists have given their movement to oppose Trump and GOP lawmakers. But 26 percent of them have taken a political action since the election.

And 84 percent of African-Americans disapprove of Trump’s performance in office — 64 percent strongly disapprove of it.

The study argues that Democrats must make face-to-face contact with these voters to encourage them to vote in the next election. Even among those who haven’t voted in any of the last four elections, more than half pledged to participate in 2018 after being interviewed.

"If Democrats hope to reach black voters before 2018, they need to show up in African-American communities, listen to their pressing problems and fight to solve them — long before they’re asking for someone’s vote in November," the study said.

In its recommendations, the study highlighted what it said was the need for a bold economic agenda.

"Progressive politicians can distinguish themselves by fighting for a bold economic agenda that honestly addresses the deep anxieties of working-class voters of all races. Incremental solutions focused on narrow segments of the population are not compelling to workers worried about losing their jobs at any moment and experiencing community level distress," it said. "We must fight harder to win economic security for all working-class Americans."

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty