Now that Hillary Clinton has won the New York primary and essentially assured herself the Democratic nomination, attention will slowly begin to shift to the general election and the question of Clinton’s ability to unite the diverse electorate that led President Obama to back-to-back victories.
Throughout her battle with Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s inability to connect with young voters has been the main talking point. However, Clinton’s ability to consistently win the black vote has arguably been the single most significant fact of this campaign. To some, it seems almost illogical that the candidate who has been lambasted for weeks for her use of the term “superpredators” to describe black criminals in the 1990s and for her support of the 1994 crime bill that ended up incarcerating a generation of African Americans would be riding a wave of black voter support to victory. But this appears to be the case, and surprisingly the Black Lives Matter movement has played a vital role in her success.
Throughout this campaign voter turnout has been down across the board for the Democrats. Neither of the candidates has been able to energize the base similarly to Obama, and as a result black voter turnout has dropped precipitously. Out of the 17 states whose election results and exit poll data I examined, total voter turnout has dropped by over 4 million voters since 2008. Also, about 680,000 fewer black voters have made it to the polls, which is a drop of 14 percent.
Clinton is basically winning the pre-Obama, or Bill Clinton era, black electorate. Sanders failed to challenge her for the black vote within this reduced electorate, and he failed to energize the 680,000 black voters who opted to stay at home. And as a result, in the 16 states where the black vote was more than 10 percent of the total vote, Clinton won every one except Michigan. Clinton’s victories were decisive, while still needing room for improvement.
Obama’s expansion of the electorate, and specifically the black electorate, was the main reason he defeated the Clinton political machine and then went on to win the presidency. In 1996, during Bill Clinton’s re-election run, only 53 percent of eligible African Americans voted. Those figures rose slightly in 2000 and 2004, and by 2008 and 2012 those figures had jumped to 65 and 66 percent respectively. And in 2012, black voter turnout as a percentage of their electorate surpassed (PDF) that of white Americans for the first time.
The Democrats need black voter turnout out to stay at Obama-era levels. Is that remotely possible? Actually, it is. And surprisingly, the Black Lives Matter movement may be the key.
BLM for the most part has chosen to stay apolitical during this campaign, and numerous times they have disparaged the political process. BLM movement members have proclaimed that activism and protests are better ways to create positive change than voting. And prominent members of the movement such as Erica Garner, Eric Garner’s daughter, have supported Sanders.
Yet, Clinton has won the primaries in the states where the BLM movement has had its most significant impact. Interestingly, and surprisingly, these are also the states where black voter turnout actually increased over 2008. In Florida, Missouri, Illinois, and New York, black voter turnout increased by 258,000 votes, which is an increase of 21 percent compared to 2008. And in Florida, which is a vital swing state, black voter turnout increased by over 127,000. Following the deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in Missouri, Laquan McDonald in Illinois, and Eric Garner in New York, BLM has had a sustained and vocal presence within the black communities of each state.
Clinton won three of those states by large margins. Missouri was incredibly close—she won it by just 1,500 votes. But it was the black vote that tipped the scales. More than 131,000 African Americans voted in the 2016 Missouri primary, and this was an increase of roughly 8,000 votes compared to 2008. Clinton won 67 percent of the black vote in 2016, and she won St. Louis County, where Ferguson resides, with 55 percent of the overall vote. I doubt Clinton mobilized and inspired the black electorate in Missouri to show up at the polls in historic numbers. The high turnout was more likely because of the persistent engagement with politics and activism that the black community has engaged since 2014 following the death of Michael Brown. But whatever the reason, they did show up, and they contributed to her winning the state.
BLM might preach an apolitical message, but their capacity to mobilize, organize, and engage black voters has already proven decisive in the race for the Democratic nomination. Black Americans who support the BLM movement appear to also encourage voting, despite the declarations of some people who at times have spoke for the movement.
Clinton is most likely going to become the Democratic Party’s nominee and now the work to expand her electorate so that the Democrats can sustain Obama’s electoral coalition must begin. To win the black vote she may need the support of the BLM movement. She may not be able to persuade the representatives of the movement to drop their apolitical ideals and support her candidacy. But if she can convince the BLM supporters and activists who have already made it to the polls this year to support her campaign, then she may have found the electorate she needs to win. This black electorate may even be larger than Obama’s and it could play a vital role in electing Clinton as America’s first female president.