Black Partisanship Levels Over Time

The election and presidency of Barack Obama seems to have shaped at least a couple different key aspects of African-American political behavior. Data from the Current Population Survey shed light on voter turnout patterns. After sizable increases in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, black turnout plummeted back to pre-Obama era turnout levels in 2016. That seems to suggest that the presence of Obama on the ballot motivated more blacks to turn out to vote.


His presence on the electoral and presidential scene appears to have had a similar influence of the partisanship of black Americans as well. Using data from the General Social Survey (conducted at least every other year since 1972), I show where blacks fell on the seven-point partisanship scale from 1972 through 2016 in the above graph. Earlier surveys include fairly small samples of blacks (an unweighted n low of 129 respondents in 1976), so until more recent decades where sample size gets larger, the graph shouldn’t be parsed for precise estimates. However, it does give a good picture of the strength of partisanship attachment over time for blacks, as well as reveals informative variation for what’s widely considered the most politically homogeneous social group in the country.

As mentioned before, an “Obama effect” in the same vein of the one seen for turnout seems to have materialized for attachment to the Democratic Party. The strongest level of identification–as a “Strong Democrat”–captures some important movement. During Obama’s two election years, 47.5 percent (2008) and 46.1 percent (2012) of blacks identify as a strong Democrat. The midterm years during the Obama presidency saw fewer blacks attaching themselves as strongly with the Democratic Party, but that’s nowhere close to the steep drop in this past election year. In 2016, 32.8 percent of blacks viewed themselves as strong Democrats. That comes closer to 2004 (39.6 percent) and 2000 (37.4 percent) election year levels of Democratic identification, thus playing into the broader story of an “Obama effect.” In this case, that meant an increase in black attachment to the Democratic Party, that returned to previous levels–and here, lower than those–after Obama’s departure.

Focusing on these trends begs the question of what their implications are on black political behavior. For the most significant variable in vote choice, the Democratic margin among blacks shrunk in the first election after Obama, but not by much. Hajnal and Lee have found mixed evidence for the potential impact of earlier declines in black Democratic attachment. Overall, it does not seem to be altering much. At the same time, it’s worth noting that changes in the degree of partisan attachment may seem to be coming from the younger segment of the black population. That notion was brought up in the above cited research–pointing to a less favorable view of the Democratic Party among black youth–and receives some support from CCES data regarding the 2016 election that showed a somewhat positive relationship between age and Democratic vote choice among blacks (i.e. younger blacks voted Clinton at lesser rates than older ones did). With an important same-race figure in Obama no longer leading the Democratic Party, it will be all the more interesting to examine any potential black political heterogeneity that may arise in the coming years and elections.

Black Partisanship Levels Over Time

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