Will Black Folks Deliver for Hillary Clinton?

Hillary Clinton may have the Democratic nomination locked in her 2016 presidential run, but without Barack Obama on the ballot, will African Americans show up for the general election?

Hillary Clinton in 2014
Hillary Clinton in 2014 Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

As Hillary Clinton kicks off her 2016 presidential bid (splashing with all the juggernautlike brand force of an album drop), few doubt that she’ll win the Democratic nomination.

But even if she skates from now into Philly next year as the party standard-bearer, there’s still no White House guarantee. A road to victory remains a foggy affair. And of the multiple pathways to a win that will bedevil her campaign, none may be as vexing as the black vote.

She’s not her former president husband, Bill Clinton, and she’s certainly not her former 2008 Democratic primary archrival Barack Obama. While the question of the black vote in this round’s Democratic primary won’t torment her campaign the way it did in 2008—as far as we can tell at the moment—it’s how she performs in the general election that could be rather problematic.

Contrary to popular opinion, African-American voter turnout was a little flat in 2014. Three reasons explain that: It was an off-cycle election, President Obama wasn’t on the ballot and many jaded black families were dealing with double-digit unemployment. With 2016 around the corner, every authority on the black vote I’ve spoken to is worried that we won’t see the kind of motivated black-voter turnout this election that we saw in the previous two—simply because, many say, President Obama won’t be running again.

The question is keeping many a Democratic strategist up at night: When the time arrives, will black folks deliver?

The Clinton camp probably has the best of a year and seven months to figure that out. Her greatest advantage could be a cleared Democratic field, since the several other contenders barely register on the electoral Richter scale. Candidates like former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) are lucky if pundits even remember their name when rattling off prospects on talk shows. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.) just passed up on a better shot at an open U.S. Senate seat in favor of a quixotic quest for presidential gold. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, an overwhelming 59 percent of Democratic voters gave Hillary Clinton a “good chance” at winning the party nod, compared with only 22 percent who saw the same for Vice President Joe Biden. Others like Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) barely registered 8 percent.

Loath to repeat the same mistakes from ’08, Clinton is poised to crush it in ’16—the 2016 primary that is. An expected bloody mashup on the Republican side—a cannibalistic wrestling match of 10 known candidates that will leave the eventual nominee exhausted—should make it easier for Clinton by the time the party nominees meet in the general. But this promises to be a difficult and potentially tight race for Clinton. Democrats embracing any Clinton inevitability narrative do so at their own political peril.

Clinton’s biggest challenge could be the African-American vote. It stands to stump her at every turn if she’s not watching it with razor-sharp attention. She’ll need a solid 90 percent-plus share of the black vote to win. President Obama received 95 percent of it in 2008, 93 percent in 2012.

Her black-support numbers are solid, according to the most recent polls. But they haven’t yet reached that 90 percent threshold. Her “very favorable/somewhat favorable” YouGov ratings (pdf) among black voters are at a combined 77 percent, compared with Joe Biden’s at 73 percent. And there are Republicans like Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Chris Christie, who—wait for it—command more than 25 percent combined favorable ratings from black voters.

She looks a bit better in Public Policy Polling’s April sample (pdf) of black voters, managing anywhere from 79 to 90 percent black voter share when matched up against GOP rivals. But she only hits 90 percent once: against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Interestingly enough, she only gets 79 percent when battling Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).