Opinion writer

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

One of the big unknowns about Campaign 2016 has always been whether core groups in the Obama coalition would turn out for Hillary Clinton at 2012-like levels. Recently there had been a lot of hand-wringing about Latino turnout, but that has since gone quiet, amid evidence that this demographic is energized in a big way, which is hardly surprising, given Donald Trump’s vow of mass deportations and relentless xenophobia towards undocumented immigrants.

But now a new smattering of articles and analyses suggest Democrats have cause for worry about another core demographic in the Obama coalition: African Americans. The main cause of this worry is a sign of potential declining enthusiasm in weak early voting numbers.

Two states that are worth focusing on in this regard are North Carolina and Florida, in part because both are must-wins for Trump. If Democrats can take big strides towards putting one of them away early by swamping Trump in the early vote, Dems will probably be able to breathe easier heading into Election Day. North Carolina is also worth looking at because it appears that one thing impacting early voting among African Americans is the ongoing effort by Republicans to restrict voting access.

According to the latest numbers compiled by Dr. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College who closely tracks early voting numbers in North Carolina, African American total absentee ballots (mail-in and in-person) from African Americans are down relative to 2012, while they are up relative to 2012 among whites:

While white voters are 15 percent ahead of their same-day totals from 2012, black voters continue to lag their 2012 same-day totals, down 16 percent. What is remarkable is that all other races (Asian, Indian American/Alaska Native, Multi-racial, other races) are ahead of their same-day 2012 totals by 39 percent.

Bitzer tells me that a key reason for this is the “reduction in locations and days in the first week of early voting” in Guilford County. As Politico reports:

Guilford County alone went from 16 polling sites available for the entire early-vote period in 2012 to only one location open for the first week of 2016 — and even that site was not open on the first weekend of early voting.

Bitzer says that this reduction during that first week of 2016 voting produced a “dramatic change from the same day numbers compared to four years ago,” adding: “At one point in the first week, Guilford County total absentee ballots was down 90 percent from their same day totals.” In the second half of early voting, those locations and hours have expanded, which has allowed Democrats to make up some ground. But they are still lagging behind their own 2012 totals — even though they are leading Republicans in the raw numbers — and they will want to close that gap to offset any advantage Republicans have in the Election Day voting.

Stepping up outreach to African Americans will be key to that. “It will require a major push to either get black voters to the polls before Saturday’s end of early voting or on Election Day for Democrats,” Bitzer tells me. And as Politico also notes, a barrage of political celebrities are coming to the state in the next few days, and a host of outreach efforts and events are in the works, to try to make that happen.

Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s David Wasserman took a close look at Florida early voting and found a similar problem. Here, the dynamic is that Latino early voting turnout relative to 2012 is looking very good for Democrats, but again, the signs are that African American turnout may be lagging behind the statewide average progress that is being made towards 2012 early vote totals:

In Florida, the good news for Clinton is that the two most Latino counties in the state, Miami-Dade and Osceola, are above the state average in their progress toward exceeding 2012 early/vote-by-mail turnout. But the bad news for her is that turnout has lagged behind the state average in all five counties with the highest percentage of African-American voters — a sign the absence of Obama from the ballot is having a negative impact.

Here the problem is not restrictive voting rules. As the Florida-based Marc Caputo reports, some Florida Democrats say the Clinton campaign has failed to devote enough resources to turning out the early vote in African American communities. Caputo also reports a lag in that turnout, even as Latino early voting is soaring:

Compared to 2012, Hispanic voting is off the charts. As of Monday morning — eight days before Election Day — Hispanics had cast more than 507,000 absentee ballots by mail and in-person early votes. That’s 97 percent of the total combined early ballots that Hispanics cast in the entire 2012 election, according to an analysis from the Associated Industries of Florida, a conservative-leaning business group….

The lowest-performing group: African Americans. They cast about 421,000 early and absentee ballots as of Monday morning, accounting for 55 percent of the total early ballots that black voters cast in 2012, AIF’s analysis shows.

Of course, hoping African American turnout reaches 2008 and 2012 levels might be a bit unrealistic, given that Obama was on the ballot, and now he isn’t. It’s also possible that if the deficit continues, it might be made up, say, by college educated whites in North Carolina and by Latinos in Florida. But as FiveThirtyEight’s Wasserman tweeted earlier today, the early signs are that African American enthusiasm is flagging, and broadly speaking, Democrats really will have to improve on that or make up for it on Election Day:

There’s still time to improve, of course. But if Democrats had hoped that Clinton’s aggressive embrace of Obama’s agenda — not to mention running against the World’s Most Famous Birther — might help in energizing African Americans behind her in the numbers she needs…well, that remains to be seen.