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.).
Some good news for Clinton is that she’s ahead by several points in black-heavy battleground states like Virginia when matched up against Republican hopefuls like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). But she’ll need strong black turnout in states with massive and typically Democratic-leaning black voting populations in places like Florida and Pennsylvania. If #BlackLivesMatter leverages itself politically, it’s plausible that she will find a burgeoning black youth voting bloc bubbling in key states like Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and, now, South Carolina.
However, we’ve yet to see how she’ll do with the African-American electorate’s most active segment: black women. President Obama won 96 percent of the black female vote, according to 2008 and 2009 exit polls. For Clinton, anecdotal talk and social media streams show little enthusiasm from sisters—and the perception among many black women of white feminist arrogance could prove problematic for a candidate viewed as the personification of white feminist success. With white female voters consistently voting more than 50 percent for Republican presidential candidates since Reagan, it could become an uphill battle for Clinton. Still, that’s an open question mark: We’ve never had a female presidential nominee before.
If candidates like Clinton really need black votes, policymakers should stop sticking their heads in the sand on the issue of still-high recession-level black unemployment and underemployment, as well as rising economic inequality and an eviscerated black middle class. A focus on those could tip the black voter scales.
Ultimately, how strong or how soft the black vote will be is up to Hillary Clinton as both person and candidate. The depth of the Clinton machine’s black political ties are still solid, relationships so deep that they caused serious emotional bruising over then-candidate Obama’s presence in 2008. But a larger question looms over her signature cautiousness: We know that she has a habit of overcalculating, but we wonder how much she’ll do that in 2016. If she pulls a 2014—keeping President Obama at a distance so she won’t alienate skeptical white voters—then she might as well hang up her chances at black-voter revival and those dreams of a White House return.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.