Hillary Clinton does not need to rebuild her standing among black voters

December 1, 2013

(Ramin Talaie/Getty Images)

In the New York Times on Saturday, Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin wrote:

Since Mrs. Clinton left the secretary of state post in February, she and her husband have sought to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans, the constituency that was most scarred during her first bid for the presidency.

Perhaps the most damaging moment from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 campaign involved remarks that Bill Clinton made after Barack Obama’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary. Chozick and Martin write:

But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Mr. Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

It appears that the Clintons are making a real effort to repair any damage from that comment.  But Chozick and Martin’s account would benefit from a crucial distinction: African American voters vs. African American political leaders.  The leaders may need to be wooed.  But the voters really do not.

The reason is simple: Political leaders of all stripes (and all races) pay a lot more attention to politics than voters do.  Political leaders would most likely not only remember Bill Clinton’s remarks but, in some cases, need and expect the Clintons to make amends.  And so the article features approving statements about the Clintons’ latest outreach from African American leaders such as Al Sharpton, Tavis Smiley, and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.).

But African American voters?  It is far from clear how many knew about or remember Bill Clinton’s remarks nearly six years ago.  Among black voters, any negative feelings about Hillary Clinton were erased long ago.  Pew Research Center surveys showed that during the 2008 primary campaign, Clinton’s favorability dropped sharply among blacks: 82 percent expressed a favorable opinion of her in December 2007.  Only 59 percent did in May 2008.  But a year after the election, bygones were bygones: 93 percent had a favorable impression of her in November 2009.  No doubt her role in the Obama administration helped.  A Quinnipiac University survey from this past July suggested that little has changed: 88 percent of blacks had favorable views of Clinton then as well.

It can be important for politicians to court leaders within important constituencies because these leaders often provide cues for voters.  But Hillary Clinton’s reputation among black voters is on solid ground.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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