By David Catanese, unews.com
The purpose of the ceremony at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, last week was to mark the legendary defiance of Rosa Parks on a city bus. But the accolades from the pulpit showered down on Hillary Clinton.
Ben Crump, president of the National Bar Association, described Clinton as the “very definition of a trailblazer” whom he looked forward to watching his daughter see take her “rightful place in the White House.”
Parks’ attorney, Fred Gray, induced a standing ovation when he thanked “the next president of the United States for being here.”
And Bernice King – the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – delivered a benediction asking for grace in this “century of the woman.”
The outpouring of reverence for Clinton, woven seamlessly throughout the commemoration of a civil rights icon, revealed the deep affection among the gathering of prominent African-Americans for the former secretary of state. Now, the Clinton campaign is attempting to harness that goodwill to achieve an onerous feat: maintaining the record-setting turnout among black voters inspired by President Barack Obama.
Even as she navigates a primary in which she faces little competition for the African-American vote, Clinton has been nurturing the constituency with policy rollouts, private meetings and surrogate assignments. She’s targeting black radio stations in South Carolina – where more than half of the primary voters are African-American – noting her proud service in the Obama cabinet. She’s met with African-American mothers who have been thrust into the national spotlight for having lost children to gun violence. She’s sat for interviews with influential African-American media figures like Al Sharpton, Roland Martin and April Ryan. And she’s tapped familiar faces, like former host of “The View” Star Jones, to campaign on her behalf inside of black churches. On Friday, her campaign’s African-American director will host a conference call with black sororities to continue the process of enlisting new volunteers and emissaries.
“Hillary has earned the respect of the African-American community,” says Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, the first African-American congresswoman elected in the state of Alabama. “She’s the only one, in my opinion, who has truly delivered results for the African-American community.”
Barring an unforeseeable turn of events, Clinton or any Democratic nominee will easily carry the black vote in November’s general election. But how big of a margin she can produce could prove decisive for her chances of capturing the White House.
African-American turnout in Obama’s re-election victory over Mitt Romney in 2012 marked a milestone. It was the first time since 1968 that blacks outvoted whites, according to a U.S. Census analysis. Whereas 64 percent of eligible white voters cast ballots, the number was 66 percent for blacks.
The Cook Political Report calculated that African-Americans accounted for Obama’s entire margin of victory in seven states, including the three most coveted battlegrounds: Florida, Ohio and Virginia.
The same number-crunchers believe Clinton’s key to victory could be whether she can replicate Obama’s numbers, or even creep close, without Obama on the ballot.
“It seems hard to imagine that the next Democratic presidential candidate will approach Obama’s performance among black voters, but exactly how close the next Democratic candidate comes will matter a lot. In fact, African-American turnout could be more important to the outcome of the 2016 election than the ability of Republicans to rekindle their support among Latino voters,” wrote Nate Cohn for The New Republic just after the 2012 election.
Stefanie Brown James describes Clinton’s task in matching Obama as “an uphill battle with 50-pound weights on each leg going up Mount Everest.”
She would know.
As Obama’s 2012 national African-American director, James was charged with improving on the president’s historic 2008 turnout at a time when many in the community were disappointed in the level of hope and change they had seen during his first four years.
“I went on a ‘let me take the blame and get beat up tour,'” she recalls. “We had to persuade. It took convincing. The same is going to be true for Hillary.”
James enlisted African-American vote directors in nine battleground states, tasked with identifying community leaders block-by-block in high-concentration African-American cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati. The level of microtargeting drilled down to barber and beauty shop programs, where campaign officials would hold conference calls with updates as salons snipped hair. A “DJs for Obama” program ensured the campaign had a voice in front of clubgoers.
The multipronged, supercharged effort was a success, especially with black women, who voted at a higher rate than any other group, across gender, race and ethnic lines. African-American females turned out at a rate of 70 percent in 2012, 4 points higher than white women and 7 points higher than white men, according to the Center for American Progress. And Obama captured the votes of 96 percent of black women.
This, of course, is a natural constituency for Clinton to court, and she’s already been devoting consistent time to outreach.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, who represents Columbus, says just last week she was in touch with Clinton’s African-American director, LaDavia Drane, a former director of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Beatty says African-American women will be just as motivated voting for the first potential female president as they were for the first black president.
“I think you’re going to see the same thing. My mother again, who is still living at 92, never thought she would see a female as president. When you have first-time voters, young females coming out and others, she will create just as much excitement,” Beatty says.
But William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies demography, doubts that assertion and says a more realistic goal for Clinton would be to top the African-American turnout of the last white Democratic nominee for president, John Kerry.
“Even though they’re women they’re probably more responsive to a black candidate than a female candidate,” he says. “[Hillary] has to assume she’s not going to get that same turnout. That was kind of supersized turnout.”
If Beatty is on one side of the argument and Frey is on the other, Michigan Rep. Brenda Lawrence – an African-American congresswoman representing Detroit – falls somewhere in the middle.
“Will we see the turnout of the Obama cycle? I can’t predict that. The excitement of the first African-American president clearly is not repeated here. But the need for the voice and someone to have the understanding of the issues that are important to the African-American community, Hillary Clinton checks that,” she says.
Clinton’s criminal justice reform speech in April, just over a month after she launched her campaign, has resonated with African-American elites. In it, she not only renounced her husband’s tough-on-crime approach to drug sentencing, but called for the end of mass incarceration and said explicitly, “We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America.”
She’s also made a point at being out front when it comes to voting rights, another threshold issue of importance for minorities. Amid the flare-up over Alabama’s move to close 31 government offices – mostly in black areas – that issue driver’s licenses, Sewell says Clinton “was right there, literally hours after I issued my press release, issuing hers.”
It’s these early moves that show Clinton will make the black vote a priority, but even campaign advisers acknowledge it may be difficult to get an early read on their success.
If any state would provide a gauge of Clinton’s African-American outreach, it would be South Carolina, which handed Clinton arguably her most bruising defeat in 2008. In that year, Obama won 78 percent of black Democrats in the primary, throttling Clinton by nearly 30 percentage points.
This cycle, Clinton has nowhere near the competition.
An NBC national poll in October found Clinton leading Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 62 percent to 8 percent among blacks. One CNN survey of the Palmetto State this fall pegged her advantage among African-Americans at 50 points. So when South Carolina votes on Feb. 27, there may not be as much urgency to participate.
“It’s a tougher litmus test because the campaign doesn’t have another big mainstream Democrat running to contest for those votes. This is why doing turnout is going to be hard. The contest isn’t as competitive as it was last time, ” says Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons.
Simmons says Clinton will perform just fine with traditional African-American Democrats, but her challenge will be inspiring the atypical voters who have simply shown no interest in coming to the polls for anyone but Obama.
This partly explains why Clinton has tethered herself to Obama more closely than many thought she would have at this point in the campaign. “They’re not tired of him, they’d vote for him for a third term,” says Simmons of the African-American community.
Yet at the same time, there will inevitably be pressure for her to turn the page on the Obama era and carve out her own vision.
Asked if she should distinctly portray her candidacy as Obama’s third term, Lawrence swiftly rejected the notion. “No. She is Hillary Clinton. She is not Obama. I would be disappointed if she just said, ‘I’m going to continue what President Obama started.'”
Besides, even if Clinton eventually deploys Obama or former President Bill Clinton – once dubbed affectionately by novelist Toni Morrison as “the first black president” – on the trail on her behalf, a presidential candidacy can’t be outsourced. It’s her campaign and the emotions it triggers will determine how many African-Americans turn up or stay home.
“I think she can come across a little bit distant,” James says. “She’s going to have to have some serious ‘I’m in your living room’ conversations, really taking the time. They want to know her better.”
“What I’m worried about,” James continues, “is you’ll have voters sit this out because they’re not enthused. People got spoiled. The Obama campaign was exciting. You felt like you were making history twice.”