Why Hillary hasn't locked in the African-American vote

Last week, former NAACP President Ben Jealous made his presidential endorsement known — and it was for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Endorsements are symbolic and may convey important cues to voters. But Hillary Clinton, in particular, should take note of this endorsement because she still doesn't have a lock on a key component of the Democratic Party vote: African-Americans.




Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the second official 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa, November 14, 2015.
Jim Young | Reuters
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the second official 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa, November 14, 2015.

Many observers have assumed that she could inherit a great deal of the African-American vote in the presidential primaries. While this will be true in the general election due to African-Americans' support for the Democratic Party, in the presidential primaries where the party label is moot, the African-American vote must be earned – not inherited. And at this point in the game, Hillary Clinton hasn't done that. Why?

Political observers are quick to point to the contentious language both Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton used to characterize Barack Obama in 2008 as a possible concern for African-American voters. But, that was eight years ago and the vast majority of African-American voters won't recall those antagonistic moments.


Instead, Hillary's inability to snag this coveted bloc of voters is all about talk that's happening right now. Although this is just the beginning of the presidential primaries, Bernie Sanders' tough and consistent dialogue about issues such as poverty, income disparities, housing, and police shooting deaths resonate with African-Americans. The narrowness of Sanders' message is efficient, while Clinton's message so far is muddled and defensive. Ask the average Democrat about the platform of the respective candidates and they probably will be able to identify more with the issues articulated by Bernie Sanders than Hillary Clinton.

More importantly, the lack of President Obama's endorsement has become a bigger red flag for Clinton's African-American support. The most important cue for African-Americans voter is President Obama, and the longer he waits, the more difficult it will be for Hillary Clinton to secure the nomination.


Racial politics have changed since 2008 and because of his overwhelming popularity with African-American voters, President Obama is now the standard bearer. No other political figure today has the ability to inspire African-American voters as President Obama. African-Americans are waiting for a cue from Obama, and that he is perceived as not squarely in Hillary Clinton's corner, even at this early stage, is concerning for African-American voters.

While it is unclear what type of role President Obama will play in racial politics once his term is over, he will have more influence than anyone. For the media and politicians alike, there is no more running to Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or the latest celebrity to reach African-American voters or for a sound bite.

Now, African-American voters wait for Obama's signal on who he supports, with Hillary Clinton waiting – and slowly waning – in the wings.

Commentary by Darren Davis, a political science professor and director of the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame. Davis specializes in public opinion and political behavior. His research areas include political tolerance, the role of threat and anxiety in political behavior, public reactions to terrorism, social desirability, the measurement of political and social attitudes, racism and racial politics, and the political behavior of African-Americans.

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