Black Voter Turnout Higher Than White Voter Turnout In 2012

2012's election represented a significant change in voting patterns in the United States. What's unclear is if the change is a permanent one.


According to a new study, the 2012 Presidential election was historic for more than one reason. It was the first time that the turnout rate among African-American voters exceeded that of not only all others minority groups, but also of white voters:

WASHINGTON (AP) — America’s blacks voted at a higher rate than other minority groups in 2012 and by most measures surpassed the white turnout for the first time, reflecting a deeply polarized presidential election in which blacks strongly supported Barack Obama while many whites stayed home.

Had people voted last November at the same rates they did in 2004, when black turnout was below its current historic levels, Republican Mitt Romney would have won narrowly, according to an analysis conducted for The Associated Press.

Census data and exit polling show that whites and blacks will remain the two largest racial groups of eligible voters for the next decade. Last year’s heavy black turnout came despite concerns about the effect of new voter-identification laws on minority voting, outweighed by the desire to re-elect the first black president.

William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, analyzed the 2012 elections for the AP using census data on eligible voters and turnout, along with November’s exit polling. He estimated total votes for Obama and Romney under a scenario where 2012 turnout rates for all racial groups matched those in 2004. Overall, 2012 voter turnout was roughly 58 percent, down from 62 percent in 2008 and 60 percent in 2004.


Overall, the findings represent a tipping point for blacks, who for much of America’s history were disenfranchised and then effectively barred from voting until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

But the numbers also offer a cautionary note to both Democrats and Republicans after Obama won in November with a historically low percentage of white supporters. While Latinos are now the biggest driver of U.S. population growth, they still trail whites and blacks in turnout and electoral share, because many of the Hispanics in the country are children or noncitizens.

In recent weeks, Republican leaders have urged a “year-round effort” to engage black and other minority voters, describing a grim future if their party does not expand its core support beyond white males.

The 2012 data suggest Romney was a particularly weak GOP candidate, unable to motivate white voters let alone attract significant black or Latino support. Obama’s personal appeal and the slowly improving economy helped overcome doubts and spur record levels of minority voters in a way that may not be easily replicated for Democrats soon.

Romney would have erased Obama’s nearly 5 million-vote victory margin and narrowly won the popular vote if voters had turned out as they did in 2004, according to Frey’s analysis. Then, white turnout was slightly higher and black voting lower.

More significantly, the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Colorado would have tipped in favor of Romney, handing him the presidency if the outcome of other states remained the same.

“The 2012 turnout is a milestone for blacks and a huge potential turning point,” said Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University who has written extensively on black politicians. “What it suggests is that there is an ‘Obama effect’ where people were motivated to support Barack Obama. But it also means that black turnout may not always be higher, if future races aren’t as salient.”

That, of course, is the big “if.” Will African-American turnout stay at the high rates we saw in 2012 and 2008 when Barack Obama is not on the ticket? Or, will it revert to something more resembling the historical norm that was a fact of political life before those elections? In some ways, that question was seemingly answered in part by the 2010 mid-term elections when, despite the fact that President Obama was very active in campaigning for Democratic candidates for the House, Senate, and Governor’s races, black voter turnout returned to pre-2008 historic levels. The same phenomenon could be seen in off year elections in 2009 and 2011 at the state level. Of course, it’s an accepted political fact that turnout in non-Presidential years is always lower than it is in Presidential years, and that the voters who do turn up at the polls do typically tend to be more favorable toward Republicans than Democrats. So, the fact that minority turnout in off-year elections isn’t the same as turnout during Presidential years shouldn’t really be surprising.

The question that Democrats face going forward, though, is whether this “Obama effect” is going to continue into the future, even when there isn’t an African-American at the top of the ticket. If it does, then the electoral college advantage that Democrats have had over the past two election cycles will continue and the GOP will find itself in a difficult position. If it doesn’t, then Presidential elections are going to be far more competitive than they were in 2008 and 2012 and the odds of the GOP capturing the White House in 2016 or 2020 will have increased. No doubt, we’ll see President Obama campaigning aggressively for whomever happens to be the Democratic nominee for President in 2016 (as well as campaigning for Democratic candidates in 2014), especially in minority areas. Additionally, the voter turnout machine that his campaign built over the past two elections will continue to aid Democratic candidates in the future.  At the same time, though, we simply don’t know if black voters are going to turnout in the numbers they have  these past two elections in the future, and there’s going to be no way to know the answer to that question until we actually see election results. Among other things, that’s going to make polling the 2016 election somewhat difficult because we simply aren’t going to know if the 2008/2012 turnout models will be replicated in 2016. In the end, we’re going to have to wait to find out if these elections were historical anomalies or if they represent a permanent change in voting patterns in the United States.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, Race and Politics, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gustopher says:

    I think another important question is whether the African-American vote was up because of Obama, or because the Republicans were pissing them off by doing everything possible to suppress their vote.

    A little of both, I suppose.

  2. @Gustopher:

    Republicans have been doing everything possible to piss off African-American voters ever since Nixon adopted the Southern Strategy.

  3. Kenneth says:

    Once again, the leftist myth of the Nixon “southern strstegy” and voter suppression. One myth ignores how racist Democrats remained Democrats and Nixon got a quarter of the black vote. It also requires ignorance of history since Democrat and racist George Wallace was running independently and Nixon knew he had no chance in the south among bigots.

    The other myth, based on racism and fearmongering, suggests that black people are uniquely inacapable of getting photo identification.

    Pathetic. Read people, something other than leftist nonsense.

  4. Caj says:

    Until Republicans can truly embrace everyone of color into their party they will have a hard time ever getting their votes! Snide remarks about welfare queens and laziness as we all know to whom they are referring. The problem is the party is so fake the voting public are well aware of it and will not be fooled by their sudden interest for more outreach to not only people of color but also gays! Republicans will go on T.V and say we must be more inclusive, but they know its not what the core of the party want so they will talk a good story to the general public but behind closed doors it’s business as usual boys!

  5. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @Kenneth: You mispelled “sheeple.”

  6. G.A.Phillips says:

    You misspelled “misspelled” Gromitt. mis·spell (ms-spl)
    tr.v. mis·spelled or mis·spelt (-splt), mis·spell·ing, mis·spells
    To spell incorrectly.

  7. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @G.A.Phillips: Noted. I shall fire my editor posthaste.

  8. C. Clavin says:

    Seems like a weak Republicanist that was unable to motivate the base was the biggest issue.
    That and the failure of several key voter supression efforts.
    Will Christie or Rubio or Paul or Jeb be able to do any better?
    Scalia is doing his best to get rid of the Voter’s Rights Act…so Republicanists may have that going for them anyway.