FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida — Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush “¦ together in the biggest swing state “¦ hoping to win over a crucial minority group that could determine the presidency.
No, you didn’t somehow hibernate through 15 months and wake up on the eve of the 2016 general election. Still, if the two favorites manage to secure their respective parties’ nominations, what attendees hear from them Friday morning at the National Urban League Conference could provide a preview to a key battle next November.
While the question of whether Republicans can win back enough Latino voters to capture the White House has dominated the political discussion, Jeb Bush, perhaps uniquely among the GOP contenders, could also put into play African-American voters. He won 14 percent of the black vote in his 1998 run for governor, a record for statewide GOP candidates, and nearly three times as well as Bush had done four years earlier in his loss to Democratic incumbent Lawton Chiles.
“It’s the most underwritten story in Florida,” said Steve Schale, the Democratic strategist who helped engineer President Obama’s Florida victories in both 2008 and 2012.
With Florida’s black population growing substantially faster than the population as a whole, a change of just a few percentage points in black voters’ preferences translates into tens of thousands of ballots — in a state where the last three major elections have been decided by a single percentage point. “It’s a big deal, Schale said. “This has had as big an impact as the Hispanic vote has.”
African-American Bush supporters say Bush’s willingness to engage with their community could upend the “Obama coalition” strategy that Clinton appears to be counting on.
“I think Jeb Bush has a great chance,” said the Rev. R.B. Holmes, a Tallahassee pastor who endorsed Bush in 1998 and 2002, and who last month was the opening speaker at Bush’s announcement rally. “If folks don’t judge him by his last name, by the ‘R’ next to his name, and he puts together a good effort “¦ I think Jeb Bush could get 15 to 20 percent of the African-American vote.”
And a double-digit target, history suggests, may not be out of reach.
While Obama, the first black president, took 96 and then 95 percent of the black vote in Florida in his two elections, George W. Bush, Jeb’s elder brother, won 13 percent against Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
While Clinton will be joined by her top two Democratic rivals, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Bush is just one of two Republicans to appear at the predominantly black conference. The other is African-American neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
“To his credit, Jeb Bush campaigns very inclusively,” Schale said. “He’s never been afraid about going in and talking to tough audiences.”
Bush’s rapport with the black community did not come naturally or easily. During his unsuccessful 1994 campaign, Bush was asked at an event what he would do for the black community. His answer, based on his philosophy that the government should not treat different groups differently: “Probably nothing.”
After he lost that race, Bush began a concerted effort to connect with groups that had opposed him. He began visiting dozens of schools, including those in inner cities. Out of that outreach came a charter school, Florida’s first, in a predominantly black suburb of Miami. It co-founders: Bush and the head of the Miami Urban League.
Bush’s message to black audiences was centered on his support for charter schools and private-school vouchers, which polling showed were popular among black parents. Then, as the 1998 campaign began, Bush caught a big break when state Democrats deposed Willie Logan, the lawmaker who was to have become their first black House leader since Reconstruction. Bush and the state Republican Party courted Logan, and used the episode in their sales pitch to black voters: Democrats were taking black support for granted, and in the end would not support their community when it mattered.
Fort Lauderdale lawyer Chris Smith was a state House member at the time and bought Bush’s argument. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” said Smith, an African-American and now a state senator.
Smith’s support, though, and that of tens of thousands of black voters, did not last long. When Bush used executive orders to end affirmative action in the state universities and state contracting in favor of race-neutral policies designed to accomplish the same thing, his multiyear outreach to the black community fell apart. There was no exit poll in the 2002 election because of technical problems, but a post-election analysis of key precincts found that black support for Bush had fallen into the single digits.
“He was given an opportunity in 1998. He squandered the chance,” Smith said.
That 2002 election, of course, was over a decade ago. As he began campaigning for the presidency this year, Bush has again promised to bring his message to communities not accustomed to hearing from conservatives, including the black community.
This time, though, Democrats are ready.
“Jeb Bush says he’ll campaign anywhere and everywhere to talk to voters Republicans typically ignore. Well, unfortunately the people of Florida are far too familiar with Jeb Bush’s record,” said Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who served in the Florida legislature when Bush was governor and is also scheduled to address the Urban League.
The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, points to a list of her recent policy pronouncements on issues important to the black community, from her speech advocating criminal-justice reform (her first formal speech of the campaign) to criticism of Republican-led efforts around the country to require photo identification at polling places.
“What is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other,” Clinton said in a June speech in Texas, where she called out GOP candidates by name for their support of such legislation.
Her campaign also points to high-level staff members who are black, as well as organizers dedicated to turning out black voters in South Carolina and Nevada, the two early states with significant minority populations.
The bottom line, Democratic strategist Schale said, is that Bush did not face a strong opponent in either 1998 or 2002. “If Jeb’s the nominee, he’s never run a winning campaign against a candidate like Hillary Clinton,” Schale said, pointing back to 1998. “Jeb Bush was running an active campaign in the African-American community, and (Democrat) Buddy MacKay couldn’t afford to run any kind of campaign.”
Smith, who endorsed Bush in 1998, said Bush’s full record as governor, from the dismantling of affirmative action to his approval of the controversial “stand your ground” gun law, is now available for all to see — as is his showcasing that record to predominantly white GOP voters in the early-primary states.
“Now we have the Internet. We can see what he says to these other people,” Smith said. “It’s going to be hard to come back and say: ‘Hey black people, I’m a compassionate conservative.’”
Still, Smith said he understands why Bush is making the effort, particularly in Florida, without whose 29 electoral votes a Republican would have a tough time piecing together the necessary 270 to win: “If he can get double-digit black, he’s the next president. If he’s down in single digits, then he can’t win.”
If some of those attending the conference’s Thursday’s session are at all indicative, Bush has his work cut out for him. “I don’t feel like I can trust him,” said one.
“The name precedes him,” said another. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
And Jay Adams, a Fort Lauderdale mother who did vote for Bush in 1998, said he did a good job overall as governor, but that if it came down to Bush or Clinton, she wouldn’t have to think twice. “Hillary,” she said. “I think she would do a great job.”
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