Clinton Will Need to Win Over the Black Voters That Landrieu Couldn’t

The likely Democratic presidential nominee needs to duplicate, or at least come close to duplicating, Obama’s performance among African-Americans. It’s a tall task.

Hillary Clinton testifies on October 27, 2011.
National Journal
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Alex Roarty
Dec. 7, 2014, 2:56 p.m.

Mary Landrieu lost her run­off race Sat­urday be­cause Pres­id­ent Obama isn’t well-liked, na­tion­al Demo­crats aban­doned her, and, statewide, Louisi­ana pretty much only elects Re­pub­lic­ans. But Demo­crats and their likely pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, Hil­lary Clin­ton, might squirm the most over her de­feat for a dif­fer­ent reas­on: The long­time sen­at­or couldn’t get enough sup­port from Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans.

Like Landrieu, Clin­ton (or who­ever be­comes the party’s stand­ard-bear­er) will try to win over black voters at the same rate Obama did in both of his pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns—only in 2016, she will have to do so without the be­ne­fit of the na­tion’s first black pres­id­ent on the bal­lot. The chal­lenge proved too daunt­ing for the Louisi­ana law­maker, whose 10-point de­feat was in part be­cause of a likely de­cline in black turnout from her Novem­ber all-party primary.

Clin­ton’s task will be easi­er be­cause black voters (along with Lati­nos and young people) tra­di­tion­ally vote at high­er rates in pres­id­en­tial races than midterms. And it’s as­sured that when they vote, she’ll win the over­whelm­ing sup­port of the party’s most loy­al con­stitu­ency. At the same time, it’s close to a giv­en that her can­did­acy, while his­tor­ic­ally sig­ni­fic­ant in its own right, won’t gen­er­ate the same en­thu­si­asm in the black com­munity that Obama’s did.

The ques­tion, then, isn’t wheth­er a post-Obama Demo­crat will do well with black voters; it’s wheth­er the nom­in­ee can do as well with Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans as Obama did dur­ing his cam­paigns, when blacks sup­por­ted him at re­cord rates. In a close race, with Demo­crats already strug­gling to hold on oth­er parts of their co­ali­tion, even a small de­cline could prove fatal.

“Just a little bit of a pull back for a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate will make win­ning a lot more dicey,” said Wil­li­am Frey, a demo­graph­er at the Brook­ings In­sti­tute.

Demo­crats have to keep two met­rics in mind when con­sid­er­ing black votes in 2016: blacks’ turnout rate and what share of them would vote for Clin­ton. An ex­am­in­a­tion of the duo in re­cent elec­tions sends mixed sig­nals about Clin­ton’s hopes for match­ing Obama’s per­form­ance.

It’s true that turnout—a meas­ure of how many people voted re­l­at­ive to how many are eli­gible to vote—among blacks in 2012 was the highest it’s ever been since the Census Bur­eau star­ted track­ing turnout rates in 1978. Ac­cord­ing to a 2013 Cur­rent Pop­u­la­tion Sur­vey from the Bur­eau, 66.2 per­cent of blacks voted in the last pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. (It was also the first pres­id­en­tial race in which the black turnout rate ex­ceeded the white turnout rate.) That broke the pre­vi­ous re­cord, set in 2008, when 64.7 per­cent voted.

But black turnout was in­creas­ing every pres­id­en­tial elec­tion long be­fore Obama ar­rived. It hit a low of 53 per­cent in 1996 be­fore rising to 56.8 per­cent in 2000. Four years later, it jumped to 60 per­cent. It’s dif­fi­cult to ima­gine that Obama’s pop­ular­ity didn’t push turnout high­er in each of his elec­tion, but it’s pos­sible that it could have con­tin­ued rising on its own even without him.

Obama also won an un­usu­ally high share of the black vote—but not by much. He won 95 per­cent in 2008 and 93 per­cent in 2012. Both are mar­gin­ally high­er than the 88 per­cent of sup­port John Kerry won in 2004, or the 90 per­cent Al Gore won in 2000.

Help­ing Clin­ton will be the fact, ac­cord­ing to the demo­graph­er Frey, that the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity con­tin­ues to grow as a share of the coun­try’s total pop­u­la­tion. So even at lower turnout rates, blacks could con­tin­ue to make up the same share of the over­all elect­or­ate.

Non­ethe­less, he adds, it will be hard to Clin­ton to match or ex­ceed Obama’s per­form­ance.

“Obama is an in­cred­ibly cha­ris­mat­ic can­did­ate,” said Frey. “He came out of nowhere largely be­cause of his cha­risma and what he stood for. I think any can­did­ate would have a hard time re­peat­ing his per­form­ance in that kind of situ­ation.”

Clin­ton does have some things go­ing for her as she be­gins court­ing the black vot­ing bloc. Afric­an-Amer­ic­an wo­men, for one, could identi­fy with the first fe­male pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee of a ma­jor party. The Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee might ali­en­ate black voters dur­ing a heated pres­id­en­tial primary, either rhet­or­ic­ally or with part of his plat­form. And while her hus­band, former Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton, strained re­la­tions with the black com­munity dur­ing the 2008 Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial primary, he pos­sesses a re­voir of good­will leftover from his two terms in of­fice.

Former ad­visers to Hil­lary Clin­ton say she doesn’t start from scratch with blacks, but she does need to craft a mes­sage and agenda that ap­peal to the com­munity.

“They have a built-in level of cred­ib­il­ity,” said Silas Lee, a Demo­crat­ic poll­ster who has worked for the Clin­tons be­fore. “But you can nev­er take that gran­ted. She has to re­in­tro­duce her­self.”

But the dif­fi­culty Landrieu faced in her own race this year demon­strates how Clin­ton’s at­tempts to ap­peal to the black com­munity can back­fire on her can­did­acy. The sen­at­or earned an in­cred­ibly high share of Louisi­ana’s black vote on Elec­tion Day last month, ac­cord­ing to exit polls. Ninety-four per­cent of blacks voted for her—high­er even than what Obama re­ceived in his last elec­tion.

What hurt Landrieu was her per­form­ance among white voters—just 18 per­cent of them backed her. And that’s not a co­in­cid­ence, some of the state’s polit­ic­al ex­perts say, be­cause the di­li­gent ef­fort she made to at­tract Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans had an equal re­ac­tion of push­ing away white voters.

Landrieu backed ex­pand­ing back­ground checks on some gun sales and re­fused to de­nounce her vote for Obama­care—os­tens­ibly be­cause do­ing so would harm her sup­port with­in the black com­munity. And be­fore the elec­tion, she said ra­cism con­trib­uted to Obama’s un­pop­ular­ity in the state.

“If you do what Mary Landrieu did and you make so much of your cam­paign about turn­ing out the black vote, then you get in big trouble with the white vote,” said El­li­ott Stone­cipher, a non­par­tis­an polit­ic­al ana­lyst in Louisi­ana. “And that is ex­actly what happened here.”

He ad­ded that he already sees evid­ence of Clin­ton mak­ing the same mis­take. Fol­low­ing the de­cision of a Staten Is­land grand jury not to in­dict the po­lice of­ficers after the death of Eric Garner, the former sec­ret­ary of State de­livered a speech in which she talked about the “hard truths” that Afric­an-Amer­ic­an men are dis­pro­por­tion­ately tar­geted by the crim­in­al justice sys­tem.

“I think many people watched her com­ments last night and she was over the line,” Stone­cipher said. “I think that’s the kind of thing she’s not go­ing to be able to do.”

It’s de­bat­able wheth­er Stone­cipher is right: Garner’s case has not eli­cited a ra­cially po­lar­ized re­ac­tion, cer­tainly not the same de­gree that Mi­chael Brown’s death in Fer­guson, Mo., did.

ED­IT­OR’S NOTE: A ver­sion of this art­icle pub­lished Sunday night with the Dec. 8 email edi­tion of Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily was in­com­plete. This up­dated ver­sion in­cludes the full text of the art­icle.


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