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African American Voters as Superlosers

- April 16, 2009

Say there’s a series of elections and that you and most others like you (leaving that phrase undefined for the moment) consistently end up on the losing side. There’s no guarantee that even if your favorite candidates had won they would have ended up acting in ways that suit your preferences, but as a consistent loser you have special cause to worry about the extent to which your preferences are going to get represented.

In an article (abstract here) in the current issue of the American Political Science Review, Zoltan Hajnal has calculated the proportion of members of various demographic groups who voted for losing candidates in U.S. elections within a given year. Hajnal shows that African Americans are by far the group with the highest proportion of “superlosers” – those who voted for a suite of presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial election losers. In fact, Hajnal classifies 41% of African Americans as superlosers, a stark contrast to the counterpart figures for whites (9%), Latinos (4%), and Asian Americans (14%). In parallel calculations for groups defined by income, education, gender, age, religion, urbanicity, sexual orientation, partisanship, and ideology, no other group even comes close to African Americans as superlosers. Democrats (24%) and liberals (21%) were the only other groups with even half the proportion of superlosers as African Americans. Of course, one reason why so many African Americans consistently came up short is that they were also Democrats and/or liberals, but wide gaps between African Americans and others persisted even when Hajnal took partisanship, ideology, and all the other variables into account.

Why is this? Hajnal points to the winner-take-all character of most U.S. elections, to the cohesiveness of black voters, and to the unusually sharp divide between black and white voters. Interestingly, he also finds that African voters are most likely to come out as winners in House elections, which he interprets as evidence that the manipulation of electoral boundaries has benefited African American voters. Logically enough, African American voters also came up as winners more regularly in more Democratic and more liberal states.

Hajnal concludes that his approach of identifying winners and losers on a group basis

bq. …should be seen as an important additional tool in the arsenal of scholars who are interested in minority representation [and] … should provide real insight into the democratic fortunes of different groups. Losing in a single election is by no means a clear sign of democratic exclusion but losing consistently across a wide range of elections – as blacks have done in recent years – is surely goiong to diminish one’s voice in democracy and could, if not addressed, lead to disillusionment with the democratic process.

This fresh take on age-old issues of representation does bring some worthwhile new data into play. At the same time, as Hajnal himself acknowledges, the missing element here is actual policy preferences. “Descriptive” representation is by no means inconsequential, but a key remaining question is how the disproportionate representation of African Americans in the “superloser” category shapes the views and actions of those on both sides of the divide between winners and losers.