The 2016 presidential race hasn’t officially started yet, but we all know the presumptive contenders for party nominee. One political brand name stands above the rest: Hillary Clinton. It can’t get any better once they make TV dramas that are a spin-off of your life.
But just like in 2008, when Barack Obama jumped into one of the most heated primaries in recent political history, doubts abound. Is the second time Clinton’s charm? If it’s a crowded Democratic-primary pack, will she catch as much black-voter share as assumed? Is there someone else, post-Obama, who can make a big play for black votes versus the Clinton machine? And once their primary is over, who on the Republican side could actually make a dent in the Democrats’ edge on African-American votes?
We turned to political strategist Tara Dowdell and political scientist Andra Gillespie for some perspective. Dowdell regularly appears on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera and Fox Business as a contributor. Gillespie is an associate professor at Emory University and author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America.”
Tara Dowdell: If she’s the nominee, I think Hillary Clinton will ultimately perform well among black voters, primarily due to our allegiance to the Democratic Party and the racially divisive rhetoric of the Republican Party. However, just how well she performs depends on a few factors. First, she has to be very careful when she attempts to distance herself from President Obama on certain issues. It’s one thing to respectfully distance herself on policy-but it’s another thing to disrespect the president. And she should be present in our communities early and take a stand on issues that impact us.
Andra Gillespie: No Democratic candidate should just assume that she’s going to win more than 90 percent of the black vote. She has to earn that vote. Hillary Clinton certainly has an advantage of being well-known and well respected, but she needs to campaign in black communities if she expects record support. And she cannot expect that blacks will impute the same novelty to her candidacy as they did to Barack Obama unless she artfully makes the case for them to do so.
Dowdell: Other than Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden has the best opportunity to garner strong support from black voters. Obviously, he is Obama’s vice president, which helps, but he is also well regarded in the black community in his own right. He comes across as sensitive to our concerns, and he’s both passionate and candid.
Gillespie: In an ideal world, Democrats would keep the old Obama coalition together, grow it with demographic changes and ride the population wave to a permanent majority. The ideal is likely easier said than done, though. A more prudent strategy would be for Democrats to assume lower turnout among blacks and only 90 percent Democratic support, and then implement an airtight get-out-the-vote strategy to exceed their goals.
Dowdell: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., would be the most likely of the potential GOP nominees to attract some black voters and, in particular, younger black voters. While he has ties to racially suspect organizations and has been on the record opposing the Civil Rights Act, not many people are aware of these issues. He also holds some libertarian views that are appealing to younger black people and younger people generally, such as his position on the war on drugs. Nonetheless, given the state of the Republican Party today, he will only be able to go so far with his outreach to the black community.
Gillespie: I look forward to the day when the Republican Party can adequately compete for the black vote. Having both parties credibly court black voters will benefit blacks in the long term if that attention translates into beneficial policies. While I have been extremely interested in Rand Paul’s overtures to blacks, I don’t think that 2016 is the year those efforts will translate into more black votes for the GOP (and by “more” I mean significantly more than 10 percent of the black vote, which is a rough average of what the GOP has received in the past 50 years).
The Republican Party platform needs to be more inclusive and supportive of black interests, and rank-and-file officials must be more disciplined and sensitive in their racial commentary. It’s one thing when Rand Paul advocates the end of felon disenfranchisement, but his efforts are neutralized when a Republican counterpart makes an intemperate comment about blacks.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and frequent contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @charlesdellison.