What happened to the black vote?

Given the controversy between Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton over the remarks of rap artist Sister Souljah this summer, many observers were anxious to see whether Mr. Clinton's supposed snub of the black leader would have any effect on black voter turnout on Election Day. Last week the first exit poll data began trickling in -- and the results were, well, yes and no.

On the Friday after Election Day, the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington reported that the black vote jumped 13 percent from its 1988 level. It based its findings on exit poll data compiled by Voter Research and Surveys, a respected New York polling firm. Then on Sunday, the New York Times published data from the same company showing a 13 percent drop in black voter turnout between 1988 and 1992.


Which figure to believe? Both, actually. They aren't directly comparable, simply because they measure different things.

The black vote did go up on Election Day: Both the absolute number of blacks who went to the polls and their proportion of the electorate grew significantly between 1988 to 1992.


But during the same period the black voting age population grew even faster. Since turnout measures the number of people who actually vote as a proportion of eligible voters, turnout fell because the absolute rise in the number of black voters didn't keep pace with population growth.

The black population is younger than the general population, and proportionately more young blacks than whites came of voting age between 1988 and 1992. Since young people are less likely to vote than older people, the influx of younger blacks into the black voter pool may account for some of the decline in turnout.

Another factor may have been Jesse Jackson's absence from the Democratic primaries. Black turnout jumped in 1984, for example, when Mr. Jackson registered thousands of new voters in his first bid for the presidency.

Does any of this suggest a diminished role for black voters in Bill Clinton's election victory? On the contrary, the overwhelming black vote for Mr. Clinton -- 83 percent -- almost exactly equaled the Democratic nominee's margin of victory.

The Clinton victory also demonstrates that Mr. Jackson is not the only influential black politician to watch. Note the host of black elected officials, from Mayors Kurt Schmoke and Maynard Jackson to Reps. Kweisi Mfume, John Lewis and Mike Espy, whose efforts were crucial to the Clinton victory. Look for these newer leaders to play an increasingly important role under a Clinton administration.