The week after Labor Day is the official beginning of the campaign to be president of the United States of America. Commercials and news coverage will fool you into thinking that the campaign has been going on for the last two years, but effectively, most Americans don’t tune in until the last burger has been flipped and B. Smith tells you to stop wearing white.
That's why the national election polls and the state polls are beginning to show the race for the presidency tightening between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. More "undecideds" have begun to commit, more #NeverTrump and #HoldYourNoseForHillary people are reluctantly choosing sides, and regular voters have perked up their ears. So how does a candidate for president start to flex during the final stretch of the campaign? I spoke to outreach and state directors for Clinton to get a glimpse into #TeamClinton plans.
One thing that you immediately pick up about the Clinton campaign is the large and diverse number of African Americans on her staff. I spoke with Corey Dukes, Hillary for America Pennsylvania state director; Simone Ward, Clinton’s Florida state director; and Nadia Garnett, Clinton’s African-American Vote director for the entire country. Hillary Clinton actually hires African Americans to do something other than "African-American" outreach. She just happens to hire the most qualified, connected campaign consultants out there and puts them to work.
Clinton enters a campaign environment where the black vote is at one of its most delicate places in years. The rise and sustainability of the Black Lives Matter movement has raised African-American expectations of elected officials on one hand, and the possibility of a Trump presidency should drive black folks to the polls. However, when it comes to enthusiasm from black voters, Clinton is certainly ahead of John Kerry in 2004 but falls far behind Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Has that led her to campaign differently?
“I don’t know if anything is really different,” says Garnett. “She’s actively engaging in the community.”
Which is true—Hillary Clinton’s forays into sorority events, black churches and professional events have not received nearly as much attention from the press as her press conferences.
Said Ward: “I would just add to Nadia’s point, she’s [Clinton] talking about the issues that matter to the community. This secretary’s candidacy is about the future and the world we want to build. We have to make sure we have strong opportunities and jobs. To make sure the economy is sound. Especially coming out of the historic presidency of Barack Obama.”
In some respects, her campaign was being too humble. Clinton likely has the most African Americans on her campaign staff of any white Democratic presidential nominee in American history. This is no accident; with African-American women outvoting every other demographic in America in 2008 and 2012, having staffers who can connect with black voters is a must.
Which, of course, raises the question: Does the Clinton campaign have a threshold for black voter turnout? Is there a magic number needed to ensure that swing states like Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida stay in the Democratic column on Nov. 8?
According to Ward, there is no magic number. Clinton wants all the votes she can get, especially in the African-American community.
“Here in Florida, we’re not taking any votes for granted. Obama won by 1 percent with less than 74,000 votes; we know that came from communities of color, and especially the African-American community,” Ward said. She also pointed out that the campaign team in Florida looked like the black community in Florida, including Haitian, African and African-American volunteers and staff.
However, in other states, the process may be a little more difficult.
“Bad news is, we don’t have an extensive early vote opportunity for voters,” Dukes said. “We can’t generate a 'Souls to the Polls' effort like in other places. Absentee balloting [is allowed], but an excuse is required. We’re behind the curve on that in the state [Pennsylvania]. As a result, almost all of our votes come in on Nov. 8."
It is almost pointless to contrast Clinton’s campaign for black votes with Trump's, since 1) Trump’s campaign is run by racists who are openly hostile to African-American voters; and 2) he barely has a campaign staff on the ground. But it's instructive to know that Clinton’s campaign doesn’t take Trump’s weaknesses as an excuse to take black votes for granted.
“You gotta earn it, right? It is a choice. Voters can stay home,” said Dukes. “We know we’re gonna get the vast majority of black voters, but 90 percent of what? Make that number as big as possible.”
With fewer than 70 days to go before the election, there is only one big question left: Clinton will likely earn almost all of the black vote, but how big will that turnout be? If the dedication and attention of her staff is any indicator, high black turnout may become the new presidential norm, and not just a fluke from the first African-American president.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.