African-Americans are failing to vote at the robust levels they did four years ago in several states that could help decide the presidential election, creating a vexing problem for Hillary Clinton as she clings to a deteriorating lead over Donald Trump with Election Day just a week away.
As tens of millions of Americans cast ballots in what will be the largest-ever mobilization of early voters in a presidential election, the numbers have started to point toward a slump that many Democrats feared might materialize without the nation’s first black president on the ticket.
The reasons for the decline appear to be both political and logistical, with lower voter enthusiasm and newly enacted impediments to voting at play. In North Carolina, where a federal appeals court accused Republicans of an “almost surgical” assault on black turnout and Republican-run election boards curtailed early-voting sites, black turnout is down 16 percent. White turnout, however, is up 15 percent. Democrats are planning an aggressive final push, including a visit by President Barack Obama to the state Wednesday.
But in Florida, which extended early voting after long lines left some voters waiting for hours in 2012, African-Americans’ share of the electorate that has gone to the polls in person so far has decreased, to 15 percent today from 25 percent four years ago.
The problems for Democrats do not end there. In Ohio, which also cut back its early voting, voter participation in the heavily Democratic areas near Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo has been down, although the Clinton campaign said it was encouraged by a busy day Sunday when African-American churches led voter drives across the state.
The black turnout so far could foreshadow a larger and more intractable problem for Clinton and the Democratic Party as they rethink their place in a post-Obama era. One of the biggest uncertainties that Democrats have been forced to confront in this election is whether Obama’s absence from the ticket would depress black enthusiasm, which was at historic levels in 2008 and 2012 and would have been difficult to replicate under even the best of circumstances.
The Clinton campaign believes it can close the gap, especially in North Carolina and Florida, by Election Day. And Democrats are seeing substantial gains in turnout for other key constituencies like Hispanics and college-educated women, which have the potential to more than make up for any drop-off in black voting.
But this election could determine if the Obama-era level of participation among blacks is sustainable. It could also show that the Democratic Party, which has benefited enormously from population shifts that have left the country more diverse, is facing a demographic reckoning of its own.
“We’ve had back-to-back elections in this country of high turnout where black voters have set the pace, and it’s going to be really interesting to see if that continues post-Obama,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster and the author of “A Black Man in the White House,” which draws on his research of voters over the past eight years to examine the Obama phenomenon and the resulting backlash.
“That is the big X-factor,” Belcher added. “Can we disconnect our mobilization, our messaging from the cult of the candidate?”
Working in Clinton’s favor even if her share of the black vote declines is the fact that she has built a political coalition different from Obama’s. She is counting on an electorate that is more Hispanic and includes more white voters — especially college-educated women — who would have considered voting Republican but are repelled by Trump.
Marc Farinella, who ran Obama’s North Carolina campaign in 2008, said it was obvious the level of energy had fallen among African-Americans. But, he added, “I’m not entirely sure it’s completely necessary for her.”
“She’s got other dynamics and advantages that Obama didn’t have,” he said.
In few places are the disadvantages that Democrats face more pronounced than in North Carolina.
Although a federal court curtailed the Republican-backed law that reduced the number of days of early voting, localities were left to decide how many polling places they would open.
In Guilford County, N.C., about an hour’s drive west from the state capital, the population is roughly one-third black. For the first week of in-person early voting there, voters could go to only one place to cast a ballot, the Guilford County Courthouse in the county seat, Greensboro. In 2012, there were 16 locations.
The banner headline on the local newspaper, The News & Record, captured the funk: “Ballot Box Blahs,” it said Tuesday. A total of 88,383 ballots were cast in the first 12 days of early voting this year, down from 100,761 in the first 12 days of 2012.
The black vote was also lagging, at 34 percent of the turnout this year, compared with 40 percent in 2012.
Some black voters, like Ronald Brooks, said they simply needed more time to make a decision this year. It was just easier, Brooks said, in 2008 and 2012, when he had voted for Obama.
Brooks, 31, a mental health worker, was still weighing his options Tuesday morning. He said he was worried about Clinton’s trustworthiness, given that she had set up a private email server as secretary of state.
“What were you trying to hide?” he said.
Brooks' hesitation reflected a generational divide among African-Americans: Older voters have an affection for Clinton and her husband, and a fear of Trump, that many younger voters do not share.
Democrats in North Carolina have been fighting other efforts they believe are intended disenfranchise blacks. A federal district judge scheduled a hearing for Wednesday morning in a suit by the state NAACP alleging that at least three North Carolina counties, prompted by Republican challenges, have illegally struck 4,500 residents from voter rolls.
The state NAACP president, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, said the purges were little more than election trickery aimed at disenfranchising legally registered voters.
“It’s sickening and disgusting, what is going on,” he said at a news briefing Tuesday.
Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science at Catawba College, said the racial composition of the early-voting electorate in the state so far is off from 2012. White voters make up 72 percent of those who have cast ballots; black voters are 22 percent. In 2012, early voters were 67 percent white and 27 percent black.
Inside the Clinton campaign, crunchtime has begun. Addisu Demissie, the campaign’s national voter outreach and mobilization director, said in an interview Tuesday that he felt good about where North Carolina stood, given how the election rules had changed. There and in other states like Florida and Ohio, he added, the campaign believes it is in a strong position to leverage its organizational advantage over Trump.
“We need to continue to work,” Demissie said. “We know that most people are driven by deadlines,” he added, “and we will see, as we have seen in this campaign at every point, a ramp-up in activity and in engagement from us as the deadline approaches.”
Florida has emerged as another potential soft spot of black support, despite efforts by the state to make it easier for more people to vote early. It added five more days of early voting, plus a sixth on the final Sunday before the election in many of the largest urban areas like Miami.
Yet African-Americans are underperforming their participation rates from 2012.
Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, compared the early voting so far in minority-heavy Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties with that in 2012. He found that of those who have cast ballots this year, 22 percent were black, 40 percent were white and 31 percent were Hispanic. In 2012, the breakdown was 36 percent black, 35 percent white and 23 percent Hispanic.
“If the Clinton campaign doesn’t ramp it up,” Smith said, “Florida will be in doubt.”
Still, Clinton maintains a huge organizational advantage, not to mention a likely lead among the people who are now voting in the Western battlegrounds of Colorado and Nevada, where Democrats have cast more ballots. And in a sign of how narrow Trump’s path is, Clinton could lose Florida, North Carolina and Ohio and still beat him.