Wednesday Q+A with Bernard Fraga

An expert on voter turnout explains why white votes still determine most elections, and how Democrats can change that.

LaTosha Brown (right), cofounder of Black Voters Matter, laughs with Mable Spears-Starks, president and CEO of Mississippi Action for Community Education, aboard a bus tour in the Mississippi Delta on Aug. 24
AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis
Oct. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

Every two years, we hear the same cliche: "It's all about turnout." Indiana University's Bernard Fraga dives deeper into voter participation in his book, The Turnout Gap: Race, Ethnicity and Political Inequality in a Diversifying America, released last week. He spoke with Drew Gerber about why white voters still decide elections, how politics overlooks the power of minority votes, and what Democrats need to do to start winning.

You looked at the idea of electoral influence as being a convincing theory for the turnout gap. Can you explain in layman’s terms what you found, and how you’ve seen it play out in 2016 and the current cycle?

So minority groups historically, and today, have had lower rates of voter turnout. The theories that have persisted in the political-science literature have focused on the presence of minority candidates as driving turnout, or when there are incentives for elites to mobilize [minority voters]. Instead of playing those two theories off of each other, I tried to find the common element behind them. It seems to be the fact that when groups are a larger share of the electorate, that’s when they’re more likely to get candidates, there’s more likely to be incentives to mobilize, and many other factors that might lead to higher turnout as well. In almost every state and almost every congressional district, whites dominate elections. They’re the largest group. And in the places where that’s not the case, the rare instances where we see minority groups numerically dominant, that’s where we see higher turnout. That helps us understand why white turnout is higher than minority turnout. We saw that again in 2016, perhaps even more so in the states that flipped to Trump like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania with very large white populations. Donald Trump did a great job motivating white voters with identity-based appeals.

This cycle has revolved around the idea of winning white voters in suburbs and working-class whites that crossed over for Trump in 2016. As you noted in The New York Times, millions of Obama voters—especially young black voters—did not show up in 2016 for Hillary Clinton. Do you think that political parties are drawing the wrong lessons coming out of 2016?

I think one perspective, which is definitely the perspective that the Republican Party has taken from 2016, is they realize the power of catering to white voters. Small shifts in the partisanship of white voters can lead to big effects in terms of who wins and who loses. Donald Trump understood that, but that was counter to the bigger narrative of “demographics are destiny,” that growing minority populations meant minority voters mattered more. What we saw in 2016 was that white voters still matter more than anyone else. ... But on the other hand, the opportunity that exists through mobilizing minority voters tends to be lost on the Democratic Party. If they focused on the base, turned out the base, they would win elections.

Have there been any changes in the way elites are mobilizing these groups? We saw Sen. Doug Jones’s special-election win, widely attributed to the support of black women, and the energy behind candidates for governor like Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Is this cycle different?

I think that the key lesson from the special election of Doug Jones in 2017 [and] Andrew Gillum’s [victory] in Florida in the primary, is that if you mobilize minority voters, they will turn out to vote. This is another path to victory. A viable path to victory for Democrats, at least in primaries—probably in the general election as well if Doug Jones is an indicator—is by mass mobilization of minority groups, many of whom have not turned out to vote consistently in past elections. Doug Jones’s election is a perfect of example of this. He targeted African-American voters who didn’t vote in 2016. Now, of course it makes sense to go after African-Americans if you’re a Democrat, they’re a heavily Democratic group, and it’s especially true in the South. But the Doug Jones lesson is that groups that have been perhaps ignored or not targeted as much because they’re perceived as not likely to vote in special elections or primary elections, that’s a path to victory. Mobilize minority voters, focus on those base voters.

Your book explores the impact of voter suppression, including the drawing of district lines, on turnout. What did you find?

We have a lot of evidence on what’s been termed “vote suppression”—polling place closures, strict voter ID laws, cuts to early voting. We have legal evidence. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in North Carolina did declare that these tactics are used with “surgical precision” to go after African-Americans and reduce their rate of voter turnout. What I demonstrate in the book is that this does not account for these large disparities in turnout. In fact, voter turnout is often highest in places with those quasi-voter suppression tactics. Before the Voting Rights Act, we saw mass mobilization of African-Americans despite the many barriers that were in place because effort was made in order to do that. We should remove these barriers, but not expect them to diminish all of the turnout gap. That is not going to be enough to stimulate mass mobilization of minority voters.

If political leaders, those heavily involved in the business of campaigns, could take away one point from your book, what should it be?

Disparities in minority-voter turnout are now driving and shaping election outcomes. Minority voters not turning out to vote have a disproportionate effect on election outcomes. The idea is that low minority voter turnout is really a critical issue, especially for Democrats. And if the Democrats want to be viable in national elections, especially as we become an ever more polarized electorate, then they need to focus on tackling this issue. That’s going to be the path forward, considering “demographics are destiny”—the growth is among low-turnout groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans, so this problem will get even worse in the future. That’s the lesson we need to learn.

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