Can Hillary Clinton generate enthusiasm among black voters?

African-American voters came out in historic numbers for Barack Obama and some analysts have posited that Clinton may not attract the same enthusiasm from the critical voting bloc.

Seth Wenig/AP
Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event in New York on Monday.

Hillary Clinton returns to her stomping grounds on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, meeting with House and Senate Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus – an early sign of outreach to a critical voter group for the presidential candidate. 

One challenge for Mrs. Clinton is that it will be tough to repeat the historic turnout among African-Americans that flocked to Barack Obama, and that could make all the difference in a close general election. (It’s not an issue for the primaries. Even her closest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, admits he’s not well known in the black community).

“The question is the degree to which she can really generate enthusiasm among African-Americans,” says David Bositis, a political analyst who wrote a book on the Congressional Black Caucus.

What Clinton may not be able to generate through enthusiasm, however, she’s trying to make up for through sheer hard work – outreach, mobilization, messaging.

“African-American turnout is an issue, and it’s very smart to start early,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake in an e-mail.

African-Americans may vote in fewer numbers in 2016 not only because Mr. Obama is no longer on the ballot, but because new black voters, especially, have become frustrated, analysts say. Their high hopes have been dashed by high unemployment and racial violence in places such as Baltimore, Md., and Charleston, S.C.

Other issues may come into play, such as insensitive remarks by the Clintons in the 2008 presidential campaign about then-candidate Obama and President Clinton’s tough-on-crime policies that have been widely criticized as having contributed to high incarceration rates for blacks. African-American votes for Obama overpowered Hillary Clinton in the southern states during their 2008 contest.

Clinton has tried to counter that with speeches on voting rights and criminal justice reform, by bringing African-Americans into top posts in her campaign, reaching out to key figures such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, and building black support in early states – for instance meeting local NAACP members in Iowa.

Her Monday economic speech on the middle class and income inequality, in which she praised Obama for his policies but said the nation had to go further on issues such as wages and pay inequality for women – particularly women of color – speaks to African-American concerns, analysts say.

“Clinton is making the effort to reach out to the Democratic Party's most loyal voting bloc because she doesn't want to take their vote for granted – a charge that is often levied against Democrats,” writes Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, in an e-mail.

Some analysts don’t think the challenge for Clinton with black voters is as great as it’s made out to be. Yes, African-Americans may have been frustrated with joblessness under the Obama administration, but their turnout in 2012 was about the same as in 2008, points out Cornell Belcher, a former Obama pollster.

“I heard all this talk about the African-Americans disappointed with Obama in 2012,” says Mr. Belcher. “You hear that from the chattering classes.”

Black approval of Obama has remained high throughout his presidency, and African-Americans have benefited from policies such as the Affordable Care Act and the auto industry bailout. This week, the president commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent federal drug offenders in an effort to make the criminal justice system fairer.

Clinton is smart to build on Obama’s legacy, Belcher says. 

The marks against the Clintons from the 2008 campaign and earlier are also not indelible, according to pollsters.

“Water under the bridge,” comments Mr. Bositis, while Ms. Lake says the Clintons are still “very popular” with African-American voters. Those voters believe the economy was much better for them under the Clinton presidency and they think “it’s great” that Hillary Clinton worked for Obama as secretary of State even after a hard-fought battle.

Meanwhile, Clinton may actually have an edge among African-American voters because 60 percent of that electorate is female. 

“The Hillary campaign has some challenges. Yes, you want to see enthusiasm. But the minority electorate is determined not to turn the clock back,” says pollster Belcher. “I like determination over enthusiasm.”

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