Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Can Hillary count on black support?

We all know Bill Clinton has been called "the first black president" (though I don't think history books will call Barack Obama our "second black president").

And we all know that, leading up to the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton was doing extremely well with African-Americans.

In October 2007 -- just a few months before the first primary -- Hillary held a 24% lead over Obama among blacks, and get this: the lead was growing! Just six months earlier, the lead had only been 17%.

But then whites pushed Obama ahead in Iowa, he became viable across demographics, the Clintons panicked, race became an issue, and Hillary had to pin her fortunes the rest of the way on white, working class Democrats.

All the while, blacks abandoned her and her husband like they'd never even dated -- more completely than anyone could have imagined just a few months earlier.

To remember how dramatic their departure, here's just one super-telling data point: Hillary won just 10% of the black vote in Virginia's '08 primary.

Daniel Koffler points out that that Republican George Allen scored 15% of blacks in his 2006 general election.

Obama utterly destroyed Hillary among blacks in state-after-state.

Salon's Thomas Schaller noted in 2008:

The black vote was to Obama what small-state white voters in the Electoral College were to George W. Bush in 2000 — namely, a concentrated bloc of voters whose power magnified their preferred candidate’s electoral support beyond their absolute numerical value.

Schaller pointed out that she could have won the nomination by just winning 20% of the black vote in key states.

So what does this have to do with 2016?

Well, Hillary might be running against an African-American again, and blacks could jump off the Hillary bandwagon again. That's as simple but as difficult as it gets.

Now here's the popular rejoinder to that: There's no way a guy like Cory Booker or Deval Patrick could monopolize the black vote like Obama. Hillary is bound to do better than she did last time.

But here's the problem with the "Bound to do better" argument.

Four years ago, Michael Barone noted that, historically, African-Americans tend to vote as a group. They don't seem to break off into factions and micro-demographic groups.

History supports the proposition that black voters tend to vote overwhelmingly for one candidate in Democratic primaries, even when that candidate's rival has valid claims on their votes. Case in point: In polls, Robert Kennedy swept the black vote against Hubert Humphrey in 1968, despite Humphrey's long and valiant fight for civil rights laws.

If memory serves, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton also got the lion's share of black votes in primaries in 1976 and 1992. Having attended black political events over the years, I remember how often I would hear speakers calling for "unity." Uniting in support of one candidate is a rational strategy for achieving political leverage for members of a minority group (although it can deprive them of all leverage if that candidate is one no one else will vote for: for example, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988). It seems that in this cycle, black voters, once they saw from the results of the Iowa caucuses that white people would vote for Obama, went en masse for Obama.

In other words, blacks tend to overwhelmingly settle on one candidate.

So we've established two things about 2008.

1. Blacks strongly supported Hillary, but switched when a viable, black alternative became available.

2. Blacks tend to consolidate their support and vote for one agreed-upon candidate.

If you accept those two things, Hillary could face 2008 all over again.

She'll come into 2016 as the undisputed front-runner (even among blacks), but if Deval Patrick or Cory Booker become viable alternatives, blacks could suddenly and overwhelmingly shift, leaving her grasping.

Sound too shocking?

This Washington Post story from February 2008, titled "Obama wave stuns Clinton's black supporters", seemed to be written about a thousand times during the 2008 primary.

You can see the confusion on some of their faces, hear the concern in their voices. How in the world do we deal with this?

Look, will blacks leave Hillary again?

Maybe not.

I don't think Patrick has nearly the stuff Obama does (see my profile here), and to knock off Hillary and get black support, you have to be really, really good.

But a guy like Cory Booker would start the race in a similar position to Obama, circa 2008 -- an underdog with tons of charisma, appeal to the right demos, and a fresh factor that the rapidly aging Hillary doesn't have.

In fact, Hillary's faced with a potentially nightmarish scenario: She does the emotionally and physically draining thing of running for president again, only to find this guy Cory Booker doing exactly what Barack Obama did to her.

To repeat something that everyone's said throughout history: History repeats itself.

At the very least, Team Clinton has to come into 2016 with a very good, very thorough contingency plan if a strong African-American candidate like Booker enters the race, and it can't just be nailing down key black endorsements. She did that in 2008, and she needs to do more this time.

There's one, final thing you should check out.

Look at black support for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. It wasn't all that abnormally good.

Granted, both contests were three-way races, but look at it this way: 16% of blacks didn't vote for Clinton in '96 and 17% didn't in 1992. That's not exactly knocking it out of the park.

THE BLACK VOTE (Via The Roper Center).

2012: Obama 93% Romney 6%, made up 13% of electorate.
2008: Obama 95% McCain 4%, made up 13% of electorate.
2004: Kerry 88% Bush 11%, made up 11% of electorate.
2000: Gore 90% Bush 9%, made up 10% of electorate.
1996: Clinton 84% Dole 12% Perot 4%, made up 10% of electorate.
1992: Clinton 83% Bush 10% Perot 7%, made up 8% of electorate.
1988: Dukakis 89% Bush 11%, made up 10% of electorate.
1984: Mondale 91% Reagan 9%, made up 10% of electorate.
1980: Carter 83% Reagan 14% Anderson 3%, made up 10% of electorate.
1976: Carter 83% Ford 17%, made up 9% of the electorate.