Here’s the Real Reason Hillary Clinton Has a Lock on the Democratic Nomination

Support from African-Americans is key, and her would-be challengers aren’t doing much to win it.

July 5, 2015, 4 p.m.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is a near-lock for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion for many reas­ons, but among the most sig­ni­fic­ant is that her chal­lengers have min­im­al ap­peal to the party’s base of Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters.

Clin­ton learned firsthand the im­port­ance of their sup­port in 2008, when many of them aban­doned her pres­id­en­tial cam­paign to get be­hind the first vi­able Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate.

This time, she should have little con­cern about that: Barack Obama can’t run again, and the can­did­ates who are run­ning haven’t done much to rally Afric­an-Amer­ic­an sup­port.

(RE­LATED: Obama, Em­boldened, Ad­dresses Race as Nev­er Be­fore)

Ver­mont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the chal­lenger with the most mo­mentum, rep­res­ents a state that’s 95 per­cent white, where Asi­an-Amer­ic­ans and multi-ra­cial voters out­num­ber blacks. He’s fo­cused most of his cam­paign mes­sage on in­come in­equal­ity, con­strain­ing Wall Street ex­cess, and cam­paign fin­ance re­form, while avoid­ing dis­cus­sions on race re­la­tions, urb­an poli­cing, or gun con­trol. Only 25 per­cent of non-white Demo­crat­ic voters said they’d even con­sider back­ing the sen­at­or’s pres­id­en­tial bid, ac­cord­ing to last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journ­al sur­vey.

Former Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, des­pite rep­res­ent­ing a state where nearly half of Demo­crat­ic voters are black, has been un­able to make in­roads with his one­time polit­ic­al base. In fact, he drew some jeers when he re­turned to Bal­timore in the wake of vi­ol­ent ri­ot­ing that tore apart the city. As may­or, his tough-on-crime meas­ures were pop­u­lar with Mary­land voters, but the no-tol­er­ance ap­proach ali­en­ated many Afric­an-Amer­ic­an voters in the state’s largest city. Even some of his base-pleas­ing ac­com­plish­ments as gov­ernor—such as his early sup­port for gay mar­riage—hold lim­ited ap­peal with black voters. In a re­cent speech, he awk­wardly com­pared his ex­per­i­ence as a “minor­ity white can­did­ate” for may­or to the broad­er Afric­an-Amer­ic­an ex­per­i­ence.

(RE­LATED: Mar­tin O’Mal­ley: I Wish Bal­timore Got Body Cam­er­as for Cops When I Was May­or)

Mean­while, Clin­ton’s oth­er rival is more con­ser­vat­ive than the en­tire Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial field when it comes to the Con­fed­er­ate flag. Former Sen. Jim Webb, who was the Demo­crats’ Sen­ate ma­jor­ity-maker less than a dec­ade ago, now finds him­self badly out of step with his party on civil rights is­sues. On Face­book, he called for “mu­tu­al re­spect” when con­sid­er­ing the Con­fed­er­ate flag in a way that “re­spects the com­plic­ated his­tory of the Civil War.” He will struggle to make in­roads with minor­it­ies, giv­en how out of step he is with an in­creas­ingly pro­gress­ive Demo­crat­ic base.

Polls in Iowa and New Hamp­shire may show Clin­ton with less-than-com­mand­ing leads over Sanders and every­one else, but take those res­ults with a grain of salt; they don’t mean much go­ing for­ward. Iowa and New Hamp­shire have among the most ho­mo­gen­eous Demo­crat­ic elect­or­ates in the coun­try, demo­graph­ic­ally dis­con­nec­ted from the party’s base in most oth­er states.

(RE­LATED: There’s Something About Sanders)

Even a best-case scen­ario for Clin­ton’s chal­lengers wouldn’t yield any long-term suc­cess. If, say, Sanders car­ried New Hamp­shire, he’d im­me­di­ately need to trans­late that mo­mentum to South Car­o­lina, where Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans make up a ma­jor­ity of the Demo­crat­ic primary vote. It’s al­most im­possible to see Sanders’s sup­port—what polit­ic­al ana­lyst Mi­chael Bar­one calls his “Birken­stock con­stitu­ency”—trans­lat­ing down South. Mean­while in Nevada, where im­mig­ra­tion is the dom­in­ant is­sue among Demo­crat­ic act­iv­ists, Sanders’s re­l­at­ive si­lence on the sub­ject makes him a poor fit. (Sanders helped scuttle George W. Bush’s ef­forts for com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form in 2007, at­tack­ing the bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion for driv­ing down wages for work­ing-class Amer­ic­ans.)

The biggest ques­tion is wheth­er Clin­ton’s un­im­peded path to the nom­in­a­tion is a product of her polit­ic­al strength, or a sign that Demo­crats don’t have any oth­er can­did­ates who can ap­peal to their di­verse con­stitu­ency. If a can­did­ate with stronger ap­peal to minor­ity voters chal­lenged her, would he or she ex­per­i­ence an Obama-style wave of sup­port? Are Clin­ton’s fa­vor­able rat­ings so sol­id be­cause of her lack of com­pet­i­tion, or is her polit­ic­al stand­ing dis­suad­ing oth­ers from run­ning against her? It’s the polit­ic­al ver­sion of the chick­en-and-egg ar­gu­ment.

The an­swer is cru­cial to her strategy in the gen­er­al elec­tion, where she’s seek­ing to re­cre­ate Obama’s old co­ali­tion by try­ing to con­nect to every one of his core con­stitu­en­cies. If Afric­an-Amer­ic­an en­thu­si­asm for Clin­ton comes close to match­ing Obama’s, then the base-first ap­proach will pay di­vidends down the road. But if she’s win­ning non-white voters in the primary by de­fault—run­ning against old white men with lim­ited ties to the rising Demo­crat­ic elect­or­ate—she could face a rude awaken­ing next Novem­ber.

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