Turnout among Black voters, indeed, will be key primarily for Democrats who hope to keep the White House and snag back control of half the legislative branch, at the very least, on Nov. 8. For Republicans, it’s a twofold hope: plucking off just enough voters of color at the margins to make a difference in a tight race or quietly wishing that many will choose to sit this one out.
Taking the lead in any massive swell of Black voters on election day will be Black women.
And in the most consequential presidential election since, arguably, 1968, no time has the Black women’s vote become more crucial than in 2016. “I’ve been around long enough to remember when a lot of folks first thought Ronald Reagan was a joke,” quips Melanie Campbell, president, CEO and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable. “Look how that turned out. This is that kind of election. I’m very worried there are a lot of folks out there not taking this seriously enough.”
Campbell was among a number of influential Black women political advocates and operatives earnestly ringing alarm bells at the Congressional Black Caucus’ 46th Annual Legislative Conference last week in Washington, D.C. There was a palpable tension in the air throughout the D.C. Convention Center as Black politicos, nervously watching the polls, expressed deep worry that Republican nominee Donald Trump was on the cusp of victory.
Of particular concern to many at the event was a sense that despite the high stakes of this election, Black voter turnout could be quite low on election day.
“It’s amazing. I’m hearing too many Black voters say they don’t like either presidential candidate or they are going to sit this one out or they are going to vote for a third-party candidate,” said Heather Foster, former senior advisor in the White House Office of Public Engagement. Foster, like many others, wants that sentiment changed fast through a galvanized Black woman vote.
The powerful potential of the Black female vote is no statistical blip. It’s been a gradual demographic shift in the making, with pollsters and researchers taking note since the “sister vote” burst onto the voting scene strong behind then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008. As the increase in the number of voting-eligible white women barely registered, the number of voting-eligible Black women increased by nearly 3 percent between 2012 and 2014, according to a Lake Research Partners’ 2014 analysis of U.S. Census data.
“Black women’s voting-eligible population has grown by 20.6 percent since 2000, adding 2.6 million voters,” Center for American Progress’ Maya Harris points out. “With more than 15 million eligible Black women voters today, Black women represent the largest share, 43 percent, of vote-eligible women of color and 13.4 percent of all vote-eligible women.”
As Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, gradually recovering from a bout with pneumonia, seeks to recharge her campaign after a sharp drop in recent polling, Black women will play a very central role in the comeback. Her first day back on the campaign trail since fainting in New York on Sept. 11 was spent in Greensboro, N.C., before a crowd largely composed of Black women voters.
The messaging in her return speech was perceptibly tailored for the sister vote.
“I have a tendency to over-prepare like a lot of women,” Clinton said Thursday. “I sweat the details whether we are talking about the exact number of lead in the water in Flint or how many North Carolina kids are in early enrichment programs or the precise interest rate on your student loans, right down to the decimal.”
How much that talking point resonates will be crucial in a state like North Carolina, where the latest, most recent five-poll average shows Clinton ahead by just 1 percentage point. Black women are a critical demographic in the Tar Heel state as they will be in states like Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and others with large Black population concentrations.
Recognizing that, the Clinton campaign appeared to reboot deployment of first lady Michelle Obama on the campaign trail by week’s end. Michelle Obama, who’s presence on the campaign trail had been notably tepid since her rousing Democratic National Convention speech in Philadelphia, was in the battleground of Virginia on Friday stumping for Clinton in a state the former secretary of state will desperately need in the win column, and where Black voters will be the key to doing so.
“FLOTUS energizes African Americans, particularly African-American women, like nobody else,” says Peter Groff, a former Obama administration official and 2008 Obama campaign co-chair for Colorado. “Clinton needs her.”
“Harnessing the power of Black women’s votes means leveraging enthusiasm in advance and boosting turnout in November to ensure that candidates feel compelled to address the issues of greatest importance to Black women on the campaign trail and in office.”
Highlighting those issues will be an important struggle for Clinton as Democrats and other aligned political activists and organizations worry the Black vote is nowhere near as energized now as it was in 2008 and 2012 with the election of President Obama. Even though Black female support for and registration as Democrats spiked by 7 percentage points since 2014, it’s not entirely clear if Black women’s support for Clinton will be as strong as it was for Obama in the previous two presidential election cycles.
For Black women, according to the recently released Essence magazine and Black Women’s Roundtable poll, affordable health care (52 percent), living-wage jobs (45 percent) and criminal justice reform (45 percent) are the top three issues. Campbell cautions those breakdowns become increasingly segmented or split according to generational differences.
“Millennial Black women are more concerned about criminal justice issues or relations between Black communities and law enforcement,” says Campbell. “Older generations are more concerned with health care.” Older Black women voters, adds Campbell and other observers, will be crucial for Clinton.
Still, even with those issues catching headlines and dominating Black political discourse in 2016, many remained melancholic about Black voter turnout. In the very crucial bellwether state of Ohio, there are few signs of much Black voter enthusiasm.
“It’s flat,” admits state Rep. Alicia Reece (D-Cincinnati), president of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. “People are just not making the connection between this presidential election and what they’re dealing with on the ground.”
“It’s not like the last elections when you had grandmom pushing that vote out,” said Reece, with a nervous laugh. “That was the ‘Big Mama’ election. She made sure everyone got to the polls, and she was out there in the cold on Inauguration Day when Obama was getting sworn in. You just don’t see that same energy today even with the stakes this high.”