Democrats are sweating over turnout in one of the most important states on the electoral map.
MIAMI — To kill Donald Trump’s chances of capturing the White House, Hillary Clinton needs to win Florida. And to do that, she needs a big minority turnout.
But Democrats are beginning to worry that too many African-American voters are uninspired by Clinton’s candidacy, leading her campaign to hit the panic button this week and launch an all-out blitz to juice-up voter enthusiasm.
Bill Clinton, once nicknamed the “first black president,” embarks on a North Florida bus tour Friday in an attempt to draw African-American crowds. At the same time, Clinton herself will hosts events in Broward and St. Lucie counties, which have black populations higher than the statewide average.
That follows the events of this past weekend, when black mothers who have lost children to gun violence hosted a Clinton organizing event in Jacksonville and a voter-registration drive in Opa-Locka, a majority black city near Miami. The group, Mothers of the Movement, includes Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, whose 2012 shooting death near Orlando became a flashpoint for racial division and gun violence.
Coming soon: President Barack Obama, who’s expected to campaign here at least twice before Election Day. First Lady Michelle Obama — more popular than her husband — will likely visit Florida as well, in addition to the ad she cut for Clinton that’s currently airing on Florida radio.
“Hillary Clinton’s campaign is in panic mode. Full panic mode,” said Leslie Wimes, a South Florida-based president of the Democratic African-American Women Caucus.
“They have a big problem because they thought Obama and Michelle saying, ‘Hey, go vote for Hillary’ would do it. But it’s not enough,” Wimes said, explaining that too much of the black vote in Florida is anti-Trump, rather than pro-Clinton. “In the end, we don’t vote against somebody. We vote for somebody.”
Part of the problem Clinton faces is that Obama, the actual black president, is the toughest of acts to follow. Obama enjoyed support from 95 percent of Florida’s black voters in both 2012 and 2008, according to exit polls.
Clinton isn’t polling quite that well in a state that has nearly 1.7 million black voters. An average of the last three Florida polls that provided racial breakdowns shows she’s polling less than 85 percent among African-American voters in Florida, while Trump polls around 5 percent.
It’s not just Clinton’s margins with black voters that concerns Democrats. It’s whether African-American voters turn out in force for her in a pivotal state whose 29 electoral votes are essential to the GOP nominee’s path to an Electoral College victory. A loss in Florida all but guarantees a Trump defeat on Election Day.
Clinton faces a similar potential problem with Hispanic voters. Though Florida Hispanics back her by double-digit margins similar to the level of support Obama enjoyed, activists fear their turnout rate will be lower. Hispanics account for more than 15 percent of the Florida voter rolls and African-Americans are more than 13 percent. About 65 percent of registered voters are non-Hispanic white, and they heavily favor Trump.
In the heavily African-American city of Miami Gardens, where Trayvon Martin hailed from, Mayor Oliver Gilbert said he’s hopeful that Clinton’s strong debate performance will generate more excitement for the candidate. He also said Trump’s position on police stop-and-frisk policies, and his suggestion that all blacks live in ghettos, could motivate minority voters.
“There’s this presumption that we’re all under-educated and uneducated and living with all of this crime — it’s insulting,” Gilbert said. “And when Trump says ‘what do you have to lose if you vote for me,’ we see how he and his crowd cheered once when a black man got punched in the face at one of his rallies. That’s what we have to lose.”
Both Trump and Clinton are making moves to reach out to Florida’s black community, which is more diverse than in many other states because some of Florida’s black population originates from Caribbean countries like Haiti and Jamaica. Clinton’s ad strategy reflects that, launching an ad this month narrated in Creole and running on Haitian radio stations in South Florida. And Trump met with a group of Haitian-American leaders in Miami two weeks ago.
Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, one of Clinton’s highest-profile black leaders in the state, acknowledged that he saw “varying levels of enthusiasm” for Clinton at a recent event. Though he said “it’s hard to recapture that level of enthusiasm” Obama enjoyed in 2008, he’s confident young black voters will show up to the polls for Clinton.
“While I’d love for them to be excited when they show up to the polls,” citing his own excitement about what Clinton’s policy agenda can offer the black community, “my first job is to make sure they get there,” Gillum said.
Clinton’s campaign says it also has been holding events in Orlando and South Florida, partnering with African-American owned small businesses and churches to recruit leaders for its volunteer efforts. Clinton volunteers, they say, have also been organizing on the campuses of Florida’s historically black colleges and universities, like Florida A&M University, Edward Waters College and Bethune-Cookman.
Among those efforts were a rally late last month at FAMU headlined by Clinton’s running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, in which he praised the value of HBCUs and hammered Trump for pushing the “bigoted notion that President Obama wasn’t even born in this country” and tying the Republican to “Ku Klux Klan values.”
Kaine’s rhetoric wasn’t enough to inspire Tyresha McClenney and Bryan Anderson, two first-time voters and FAMU students who attended the Democrat’s rally. McLenney noted that she doesn’t believe Clinton has spoken enough about racial inequality and police brutality.
“It’s not something that she continuously says, it’s only like when the media gets a video of a black person getting shot,” she said. “When the media dies down on that, and she’s still saying it … that would help have more trust in her and believe in what she says.”
Added Anderson: “A lot of her attempts to reach out come across as pandering.”
That lack of excitement worries Henry Crespo, president of the Miami-based Florida Democratic Black Caucus.
“No one is writing songs for Hillary. Obama had will.i.am. Hillary has nobody like that,” said Crespo. “Right now, the vote is against Trump. It’s not for Hillary. I still think she’s going to win. But you want your people to be for your candidate, not just against the other guy.”