ATLANTA — Hillary Rodham Clinton’s visit here to court African American voters made headlines when she encountered protesters shouting “Black lives matter!”
But those demonstrators are unlikely to sway Clinton’s electoral fate as much as voters such as Blondean Greene and Amber Jones, who best reflect the Democratic front-runner’s strengths and weaknesses with the party’s most loyal electorate.
Greene, a retired public schoolteacher, is Team Hillary all the way. “The Clintons understand black people,” she said.
Jones, a senior at Clark Atlanta University, where Friday’s rally drew more than 2,000 people, is “intrigued” by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But she wanted to hear what Clinton had to say.
Clinton leads the Democratic field because of solid support from black voters — a constituency that she will need to keep committed and energized. Her challenge will be not just getting African Americans to vote for her but also getting them to turn out in large numbers in the primaries and, should she win the Democratic nomination, in the general election.
President Obama won the White House twice, thanks in large part to record-setting turnout among black voters, who in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, outperformed white voters for the first time in history. Black women voted at a higher rate in 2012 than any other demographic group and, along with Latinas and Asian American women, were responsible for Obama’s 12-point advantage over Republican Mitt Romney among female voters.
Clinton comes to the contest with a good head start over her Democratic rivals. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted after the first Democratic debate, Clinton led Sanders 61 percent to 13 percent among non-white Democratic voters.
Clinton also has hired some of the top African American campaign professionals, including many who worked on Obama’s campaigns, and has begun to secure endorsements from top black elected officials. At Friday’s rally, she was introduced by a civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), 75. And she has been endorsed by 46-year-old Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D).
Sanders has mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Clinton, but he has struggled to generate support among African Americans, despite his calls for criminal justice reform and for tackling institutional racism.
He is leading Clinton in New Hampshire and running a close second in Iowa, the two states that will vote first in 2016. But in South Carolina, the first Democratic primary with a sizable black electorate, polling has Clinton dominating Sanders. In a CNN/ORC poll from October, Clinton has 59 percent support from black voters to Sanders’s 4 percent among black voters, who make up about half of the state’s Democratic electorate.
Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, suggests that the candidate has not conceded South Carolina. “We are working hard in African American communities to bring Bernie’s message of racial, economic and social justice,” Weaver said.
After the Atlanta rally on Friday, Clinton dashed to Charleston, S.C., where she was the keynote speaker at the NAACP’s annual banquet. There she was interrupted with frequent applause and cheers as she vowed to work to “end the era of mass incarceration,” as well as for “equal pay for women, especially women of color, who are paid the least of all.”
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said Clinton is making the right moves by campaigning in Georgia and South Carolina. “She is signaling that even if she loses New Hampshire, the strategy has always been to have a solid Clinton South.” Several states with substantial black Democratic electorates, including Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, hold primaries March 1.
Clinton’s speech in Atlanta focused on criminal justice reform, including calling for legislation to end racial profiling by law enforcement and taking executive action to prevent the federal government and federal contractors from asking about job applicants’ criminal history at the initial job application stage. The movement, called “banning the box,” is aimed at giving ex-offenders a chance to tell employers about their qualifications and skills before being automatically rejected.
She also noted that there was bipartisan consensus in Congress to reduce the nation’s prison population and said that as president she would work with Republicans to address an issue that has disproportionately affected black families and communities.
Niambi Carter, a political science professor at Howard University, said that in addition to criminal justice issues, Clinton needs to “explain to black voters how she will be good for their lives. Focus on employment and wealth generation for black communities are paramount. . . . This is a message that will resonate with working and middle-class black who are finding their grasp on the so-called American Dream more tenuous by the day.”
There are black voters who are unequivocal in their dislike of the Clintons’ politics. Some activists note that Bill Clinton signed into law tough anticrime measures that led to over-policing in communities of color and mandatory sentencing that inflated incarceration rates. And some African Americans have not forgiven the couple for statements they made in 2008, during Hillary Clinton’s hard-fought primary battle with Obama, that were interpreted as racially insensitive or that seemed to suggest black voters owed a political debt to the Clintons.
Jones and Greene, who heard Clinton speak in Atlanta, offered a glimpse into the conversations going on among African Americans about the 2016 presidential race.
Jones, the Clark Atlanta student, was standing near the protesters in Atlanta. Clinton tried to talk over chanting, and at times the crowd came to her defense, shouting “Hil-la-ry!” and “Let her speak!” The protesters were eventually escorted from the room.
Although Jones agrees with the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, she thought the protesters’ actions were wrong. “I wanted to hear from Hillary. I want to hear what all the candidates have to say,” she said.
In addition to racial justice, she said she is also concerned about paying off her student loans. Jones, a history major who wants to teach, will need to get a PhD, which means more loans.
Jones was impressed with Clinton’s speech but is also looking at Sanders. “What intrigues me is that he is a left-wing, liberal socialist, and I personally enjoy that because sometimes you need that person to ruffle the feathers,” she said. But she added that she thinks Sanders “scares a lot of people, so I don’t see him winning over Hillary, unfortunately.”
Ebony Capshaw, a Clark Atlanta graduate who drove from Oak Ridge, Tenn., to see Clinton, is also undecided. She had hoped that Vice President Biden would jump into the race. “I feel like he would have continued the legacy of Obama,” she said.
Capshaw, a hospital pharmacy technician, said her top issue is making sure that the GOP doesn’t repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Greene, the retired teacher, said she thinks Biden’s candidacy was being pushed “by all these guys,” including some Republicans, “who don’t want to be led by a woman. They would prefer him rather than Hillary because she’s a woman — and she’s a Clinton.”
Clinton’s composure under pressure — demonstrated during Friday’s rally and during 11 hours of questioning before the House committee hearings on the 2011 attacks in Benghazi — impressed Jones. “That was a plus for me with her, the way she handled that . . . She came out stronger, ” Jones said, clutching a blue-and-white Clinton campaign sign. “I’m going to go start volunteering for her campaign.”