Black voters made history in 2008 and 2012 with such enthusiastic turnout that it propelled Barack Obama to a landslide victory as the nation’s first black president.
Will it happen again in 2016 without Obama on the ballot?
The uncertainty of black voter turnout is one of the biggest unknowns going into the November election. Perhaps even more so now, after a week of violence across the nation and simmering racial tension.
Two major civil rights conventions are coming to Cincinnati in the next week and voting is a crucial priority at both.
Organizers hope that massive voter registration drives, social media pushes and even nudging from pastors will inspire African-Americans to register and then show up at the polls in November.
“We’re connecting protestors and demonstrators in the streets to voter mobilization at the polls. If you are an activist and are outraged, you are a prospective voter empowered,” said Cornell William Brooks, president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which is expected to draw 10,000 attendees to its convention here from July 16 to 20.
Voting is also a top priority for the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus, which is hosting its convention here on Friday and Saturday.
“You turn on the TV and you’ve got these situations, whether it is a police officer being killed or African-American men being killed: It’s exhausting and it’s beginning to cause people to give up,” said state Rep. Alicia Reece, who is the caucus president. “In order for them to get out to vote, the message has to be a message of empowerment. This election, their survival is on the ballot.”
Criminal justice reform may be at the forefront of the news now, but other issues are just as important to black voters: income inequality, poverty, voting rights, student debt and ending the preschool to prison pipeline.
Yet, it may not be enough to drive them to the polls in the same unprecedented numbers that Obama was able to inspire with his message of hope and change.
“The general expectation across the board is that voter turnout will not beat 2012 and 2008 this year,” said Jared Kamrass, principal at political consulting firm, Rivertown Strategies.
“The historical nature of 2008 brought out African-Americans and new voters. It was a watershed election,” Kamrass said. “It’s hard to replicate that, especially when you compare it to this year, with two of the least popular candidates for president running at the same time.”
Can Clinton Inspire the Black Vote?
Hillary Clinton is counting on the black vote. The real question is, how many of those votes will she get?
“Black voters who vote, I suspect, are more likely to vote for her. Her issue is turnout,” said Eddie Glaude, chair of Princeton University’s African-American studies department and author of a new book Democracy in Black.
Clinton is overwhelmingly popular with black voters - she leads with them 91 to 5 over presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, according to the newest poll from Public Policy Polling. Women, Hispanics and young voters also favor her.
The key is translating popularity into turnout, as Obama was able to do.
Black turnout rates for the last two presidential elections were higher than in any election since 1968. In fact, black turnout exceeded white turnout for the first time ever in 2012.
Minorities were solely responsible for Obama winning key swing states in both elections, according to the Brookings Institution.
Experts are skeptical Clinton can duplicate that success.
“If the Democratic Party believes the only motivation needed (to inspire turnout) is the prospect of a Trump presidency ... they are going to be surprised," Glaude said.
What Clinton says when she speaks at the NAACP Convention on July 18 could be hugely important.
Not only is she addressing a pivotal audience, but it comes at a time when the nation is still reeling from the shooting deaths of two black men by police officers in Minnesota and Baton Rouge, La., and a sniper attack that left five white Dallas police officers dead.
“I don’t know what she’ll say,” Kamrass said. “I’d hate to be her speechwriter. That’s a hard needle to thread.”
NAACP president Brooks said Tuesday that Trump declined an invitation to speak at the convention.
But Glaude knows what he doesn’t want to hear from Clinton.
“Something new has to come out of her mouth,” Glaude said. “It can’t just be – vote for me because look at the alternative … The only motivation can’t just be fear.”
Glaude believes people are tired of conversation about change, and want action.
“She’s going to have speak to actual realities," Glaude said. "So many black communities are in ruins now. We need actual policy.”
Massive Voter Registration Drives
Black leaders aren’t relying on Clinton to drive turnout this fall.
“I think the campaign is different this time in terms of messaging to African American voters," Reece said. "I don’t think the White House alone is going to carry people to the polls."
Reece wants voters to pay attention to down ballot races, because oftentimes the most impactful change occurs at the local level.
“This election is not just about the White House,” Reece said. “Judges are on the ballot. Congress is on the ballot. Prosecutors are on the ballot.”
The themes of both the NAACP convention and the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus reflect the importance of the black vote, and it is a top priority for both.
The caucus will host a ministers roundtable discussion on Friday focusing on how churches can help encourage voting. The caucus wants churches to check members to make sure they are registered to vote and have not been purged.
The caucus is also hosting a voter registration party at OTR Live for young people on Friday night.
Over the last five years, roughly two million people who don’t vote often were removed from voting rolls in Ohio.
The ACLU sued Secretary of State John Husted's office, charging that the practice was illegal because it targeted minorities and lower-income voters who tend to favor Democrats.
A federal judge ruled in June in favor of Husted.
“President Obama broke the record with new voters. My question is, will these people still be on the voting rolls?” Reece said. “We’re launching out of our convention a massive voter registration, and in some cases re-registration drive."
But voter registration may be the easy part. Convincing black voters that going to the polls on Election Day will result in actual change in their lives – that’s the hard part, experts say.
“We will have very substantive panels, plenaries and seminars all week with the focus on voting and taking action and civic engagement,” said Brooks of the NAACP. “Yet if they leave better educated but less motivated to act, we will have failed.
“We’re coming to Cincinnati to move to action, not for a speaking session,” Brooks said.