×

Clinton's 'Florida freak out' is all about turnout and race

Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton
Mark Makela | Getty Images
Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton is leading Donald Trump in Florida by just half of a point, according to the RealClearPolitics average of all current polls.

Top Clinton campaign strategists are becoming increasingly worried about carrying the 29-electoral vote Sunshine State on Election Day. And they should be. Trump has won four of the last seven published Florida statewide polls for one thing, but there's something even more troubling for Team Clinton: Strong African American voter turnout is very much in doubt.

For all the talk about how demographic trends and the growth of minority populations are all moving in favor of Democrats in national elections, the fact is that Hillary Clinton desperately needs unusually high minority voter turnouts to win the White House. This is not something unique to Clinton. Almost 10 months ago, David Wasserman at 538 crunched the numbers and realized that even a relatively small dropoff in African-American voter turnout would mean any Democrat running for president would lose Florida. To be more specific, black voters in Florida had 66 percent voter turnout in 2012. If that falls back to the 2004 level of about 60 percent, Hillary loses Florida.

To avoid this scenario, Clinton is going to lean on President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama to make multiple campaign appearances in Florida. But that may not work out as well as she hopes. We may have already had a preview of President Obama's message to black Floridians when earlier this month he said that he would take it as a "personal insult" if blacks do not turn out to vote for Clinton in strong numbers.

But shouldn't his pitch be less about him and more about how his policies have helped the African American community make economic and other strides since he took office? Usually it would. But there's a lot of doubt about whether blacks are better off than they were eight years ago. And with so many black voters now focusing on police shootings of black men in several recent incidents, any kind of "happy talk" from President Obama may not go over well.

"For all the talk about how demographic trends and the growth of minority populations are all moving in favor of Democrats in national elections, the fact is that Hillary Clinton desperately needs unusually high minority voter turnout to win the White House."

Even if recent news events were rosy, President Obama's continued campaign appearances for Clinton could also serve to remind many black voters of their enthusiasm for him and how they're relatively not so enthusiastic for Clinton. In other words, they could start to really miss President Obama before he's even gone just by being reminded that he is almost out of office. And voter enthusiasm is one of the toughest things to pass on from one candidate to another.

Contrast that Clinton Florida "freak out" with the unique role the state represents in Trump's strategy. His campaign identified the state as a place where he could make strides compared to Mitt Romney's super slim one percentage point loss in 2012 for several reasons. One was the fact that Trump lives part of the time in Florida and has many businesses there. Second, Trump's lead among elderly voters in the polls is stronger than any Republican candidate since President Reagan won the 65-plus demographic by 18 points in 1984.

But race is also playing a role in the coalition Trump is trying to build to win the White House, and Florida plays a big part of that. In the last two presidential elections, a higher percentage of black voters have turned out to vote than whites. This is not about demographics like the shrinking relative numbers of white people in America.

This is about voter enthusiasm. A whopping two million fewer whites voted for president in 2012 compared to 2008. And it's been clear that Trump has been trying, and trying pretty successfully, to get many of these disaffected whites interested in voting and voting for him. That kind of success helped push the total number of votes cast in the 2016 Florida GOP primary up by a hefty 41 percent compared to 2012. And it's hard to believe the extra voters who came out to the polls in a primary won't do the same thing in a general election.

Trump's appeal to the lower middle class white voters who have abandoned the voting process in recent years comes in many forms. His focus on preserving and replacing manufacturing jobs is one, along with his promised to crack down on illegal immigration. His recent attacks on the Fed, so foreign and offensive to the established and richer investment community, is like catnip to millions of elderly voters who have seen their savings accounts frozen in place for years because of super low interest rate policies.

Both of these strategies are helping Trump boost that nascent white vote in Florida. And while the Clinton team is focusing on countering that by perpetuating recent high black voter turnout, it might be a better idea if its recent reported Florida "freak out" produced some kind of message that speaks to white voters as well.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.