Will Hillary Be Our 3rd Black President?

Were Obama’s 95-5 margins an aberration because of his race? So everyone says. But maybe 95-5 (or something close) is the new normal.

Phil McCarten/Reuters

Here’s one story I predict you’re going to read (should you choose to) about 367 times over the next 17 months: that Hillary Clinton isn’t going to do as well or maybe even nearly as well among African-American voters, because, well, it’s obvious. Black people, we’ll be told, won’t be enthusiastic about turning out to vote for her, because what’s she ever done for them. And of course some portion of those 367 stories will feature breathless speculation that the Republican, whoever it is, just might surprise us among black voters, because remember what George W. Bush did in 2004, and the younger generation of African Americans don’t feel the old loyalty to the Democrats their parents did, and, and, and, you can write the rest yourself.

It will be a key element in the “Hillary’s in Trouble” meme that’s going to dominate the coverage of her campaign in the mainstream media. But is there any truth to it?

Yes, a little. Clinton and John Podesta and her other strategists are acknowledging as much with the big speech she gave yesterday in Texas laying the lumber into Republicans about voting rights and recent GOP voter-suppression schemes. This was her first capital-P Political speech of the campaign, and that she chose to make that speech about this topic and not a broader economic one, or one aimed squarely at women, say, demonstrates clearly enough that Clinton is concerned about getting out the black vote.

It was also a partisan speech, of the sort she doesn’t usually give and most presidential candidates don’t typically deliver this early in the process. If it’s true that partisanship turns off centrist voters, and it is to some extent, then the Clinton camp obviously made the calculation that with respect to this issue and the larger goal of black turnout, alienating some white independent voters is a price worth paying.

But how much worrying does Clinton really need to do here? The standard media line, as suggested above, will be that Obama skewed things by being black and all, and that if you go back to 2004 and recall that George W. Bush got 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio, that was somehow a more “normal” state of affairs, because there were two white candidates.

So, let’s look at the numbers. Yes, Obama did skew things. He won the black vote 95-4 in 2008 and 93-6 in 2012. By contrast, John Kerry won the black vote 88-11. If you go back to 1964, that’s exactly what the Democratic nominee averages, 88 percent. The Republican averages 10 percent.

Aside from head-to-head numbers, there’s the matter of turnout. Obama also inspired blacks to vote in larger numbers, of course, so they made up 13 percent of the overall electorate in 2008 and 2012, as opposed to 11 percent in 2004. The increase in Ohio was particularly striking. In 2004, blacks constituted 10 percent of the total Ohio vote. In 2012, they were 15 percent.

But here’s the question. Are the Obama-era numbers an aberration, or are they more like a new normal? The near-universal assumption among journalists is aberration. But here’s the case for why they might be something closer to the new normal, which rests on two points.

The first is the much-discussed demographic change. The white vote over the last three presidential elections has gone from 77 percent (2004) to 74 percent (2008) to 72 percent (2012). If the Obama era was an aberration, you’d expect that figure to bounce back up. But electoral demographers say quite the opposite. One comprehensive statistical model predicts that the white vote will just keep dropping, down maybe to 70 percent in 2016. The African-American vote is expected to at least hold steady at 13.

But second and more important, it’s about the Republican Party of then versus now. When Gerald Ford was getting 15 percent of the black vote in 1976, his party wasn’t carrying out a jihad to make sure as few black people could vote as possible or uncorking champagne when the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act. Or, for that matter, trying to make sure as few working poor people as possible could have access to health insurance.

When I was young I thought Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party was bad on race, and it was, but the GOP is a far more openly and aggressively anti-black-people party today. Back then, there were still a fair number of moderate Republicans in the House and Senate who voted for civil rights measures. Arguably the greatest legal crusader against segregation of the 1960s and 1970s was a Republican, the venerable John Doar. Heck, Republicans in Congress even reauthorized the VRA when Dubya was president! Those days are long, long gone. Maybe not forever, but certainly for the foreseeable future.

Clinton will have to work it. And she is—a proposal for automatic voter registration for every citizen who turns 18 (unless that citizen decides to opt out), which she called for in the speech, is great stuff. But her competition—unless they nominate Rand Paul, which seems increasingly unlikely—is making it easier for her. She probably won’t duplicate Obama’s numbers, but if someone wants to bet you that her black-vote totals will be closer to John Kerry’s than to Obama’s, that’s a bet I’d advise you to take in heartbeat.