In the waning days of the most divisive contest in modern presidential history, early-voting trends suggest that many African Americans voters have checked out of Election 2016. No Democratic candidate would ever be likely to match Barack Obama’s historic success or his ability to turn out black voters (save perhaps Michelle Obama, who has vowed never to run for public office) Hillary Clinton’s equally historic quest to be the first woman president has gotten lost amid the media’s 24/7 coverage of Donald Trump’s daily eruptions. But that’s just one reason why some African American voters are underwhelmed by the prospect of a Clinton presidency.
Another fundamental problem is a Democratic ground game that may completely eclipse Republican efforts nationwide, but which pales in comparison to the Democrats’ African American outreach in 2008 and 2012. At this past summer’s National Association of Black Journalists conference, some attendees argued that candidate Clinton had failed to lay the foundation for a well-coordinated grassroots mobilization effort in black neighborhoods. David Plouffe, a former Obama campaign strategist who is in regular contact with the Clinton crew, admitted that he had concerns: “What you need is people,” he told the audience. “It is not how much you spend; it is not how great your digital strategy is; it’s whether people care about you. It’s whether people care enough about you to go out and give their time, which is the most precious thing that they have.”
Some argue that the early-voting lag among African Americans in battleground states like Florida is the result of that failure to launch a sustained, people-power ground game in key areas. U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings, who represents sections of Broward, Palm Beach, and Hendry Counties, told Politico that he had been “screaming for months” about increasing get-out-the-vote spending. The congressman said that he received no response from the campaign despite a personal plea to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.
In Florida, fears about black voters’ diminished interest in the presidential election have been borne out by the uphill efforts of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, a nonprofit organization that works on voter education initiatives and other strategies to increase African American engagement in the democratic process. For the coalition, Election 2016 has been tougher than 2012. “It’s been a gut-wrenching election to get people to the polls for,” says Melanie Campbell, the coalition’s president, who has checked out mobilization efforts in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio in recent weeks.
Nonpartisan community, civil-rights, and social-justice organizations, Campbell says, have lacked the resources to invest in voter education and in organizing religious and other community leaders. Volunteers, especially students, haven’t showed up the way they did for Obama’s two campaigns.
Indeed, the generational divide between millennials and their elders has emerged as a major problem. Salandra Benton of the coalition’s Florida affiliate says black students have complained that neither Clinton nor Trump drills down into their key issues: jobs, college costs, and criminal justice reform. On the campaign trail, Clinton repeatedly touts free college and relieving student debt, but that message has been overwhelmed by the news media’s constant focus on email controversies and her need to go on the defense. The nonstop debates over those travails and Trump’s misogyny do not interest them either.
Nor is revulsion for Trump’s louder-and-prouder bigotry motivation enough to get many young people to the polls, even in a region of the country where African Americans confront the ugliest forms of racism everyday. In her travels to historically black colleges throughout Florida, Benton had students tell her, “We already know people hate us,” citing Trayvon Martin’s death. “Nobody has to get on the mic to tell us that.”
At past GOTV drives at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, a historically black institution, the coalition had as many as 2,000 students marching to the polls for early voting. This year, they had no more than a few hundred, Campbell says. Campbell and her co-workers have had success in persuading individual students who had planned not to vote to change their minds, however—often by explaining that blacks have only had the right to vote for a few decades in the South.
More attuned to the value of civic engagement and the perils of a Trump presidency, older voters have needed no such encouragement to cast their ballots, even in the face threats of intimidation at the polls. But Campbell, a Florida native, says the heightened racial tensions in the state are palpable. “You can feel it,” she says. "When you walk into a store or stop somewhere, it’s there.”
State and local issues may still boost turnout in some black communities. In Georgia, a ballot measure that would allow the state to take over chronically failing schools has “fired up” African Americans whose neighborhoods would disproportionately lose control of their schools. But Campbell found college students in Georgia, many of them onetime Bernie Sanders supporters, just as conflicted about voting as their Florida peers. When she traveled to Ohio, Campbell noted that people in low-income East Cleveland told her that they hadn’t seen much evidence of election-related activity but that they still planned to vote.
As the dynamic duo of Barack and Michelle Obama prepares to parachute into Philadelphia to join Hillary and Bill Clinton on Election Eve, the most prescient analysis of Clinton’s electoral dilemma has come from Obama himself, who has warned that “the black vote is not as solid enough as it needs to be.”
Early-voting trends do not presage which candidate is better positioned to reach 270. But the Clinton campaign made a conscious decision to pursue a data-driven strategy over some conventional forms of voter mobilization. It now has to bat away the perception that its affinity for numbers has left a key constituency feeling that its issues have been ignored. Whatever the outcome, Election 2016 promises to be a referendum on whether Hillary Clinton deployed the right mix of tactics early enough to appeal to African American voters.