Why Hillary is courting African-Americans so early

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks to guest during a dinner for Medal of Freedom awardees at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talks to guest during a dinner for Medal of Freedom awardees at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on November 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

A New York Times feature on Sunday illustrated the most important way Hillary Clinton is preparing for a likely 2016 presidential run: building strong alliances with African-Americans. The piece detailed her moves, from a speech on the Voting Rights Act to an appearance at Howard University  to former President Clinton’s writing hand-written notes to key black members of Congress.

Why is Clinton taking steps, and so early? Clinton aides aren’t saying why publicly, but there is one obvious reason: preventing the emergence of another Barack Obama.

Clinton is a clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, but she was in that same position in 2005, three years before the presidential election back then. The clearest and perhaps only path for a Democrat to defeat her would to repeat Obama’s strategy in 2008: combine the support of very liberal Democratic voters, the kind of people pining for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run in 2016, with a strong base of blacks, who are the majority of voters in some primaries, particularly in the South.

Without galvanizing both of those blocs, it will be hard for another Democrat to challenge Clinton. Just getting the backing of liberals is not enough: unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidates like Bill Bradley in 2000 were not able to build support beyond that bloc. A candidate who is strong among blacks, like Jesse Jackson in 1988, but doesn’t have enough white support, also won’t win.

On the other hand, Obama won in overwhelmingly-white Iowa. He received 38 percent of primary votes there, compared to the 8 percent Jackson won in 1988. At the same time, Obama finished behind  both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards among white voters in South Carolina’s primary in 2008 and won anyway.  An estimated 55 percent of the state’s Democratic primary electorate was black, and Obama won 78 percent of those voters. In Georgia’s primary, Clinton won 53 percent of the white vote to Obama’s 43 percent, but Obama won 88 to 11 percent among blacks, allowing him to carry the state.

Looking forward to 2016, it’s not obvious who can successfully combine these two voting blocs. It’s not clear if any Democrat has a stronger claim to liberal voters than Hillary. Warren is beloved by some liberals for her anti-Wall Street views.

But the gap between Warren’s stances on key economic issues and those of Clinton is not as large as what existed in 2007 between Obama and Clinton, who had angered liberals by voting for the Iraq War in the Senate. Obama had been an early opponent of a war most Democrats later concluded was a mistake.

And even before this new outreach to African-Americans, the Clintons had stronger ties to key black activists than Warren, Vice-President Joe Biden or any other white Democrat.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker is popular with liberal Democrats and is African-American, making him the closest parallel to Obama. And if it sounds implausible that Booker would run for president in 2015 after just entering the Senate in 2013, remember Obama entered the Senate in 2005 and was on the campaign trail by 2007. And the fact that Booker has said he will not run for president in 2016 is irrelevant; Obama made and broke a similar pledge.

Like Obama in 2005, Booker is now viewed with some suspicion by some black leaders, and it seems unlikely he would carry huge percentages of the black vote. But it’s important to remember that even late into 2007, some polls showed Obama and Clinton essentially splitting the black vote, as the former first lady was then very popular among African-Americans.

Only once Obama won in Iowa did blacks galvanize around him and help Obama easily win in heavily African-American states like South Carolina and Alabama in the Democratic primaries.

All that said, it’s hard to see Booker running for president and repeating the Obama path to the nomination. It’s impossible to know if he would have the talents of Obama to match Clinton in debates and fundraising, if white liberals in states like Wisconsin and Iowa would back him over Clinton or if blacks would support him with 90 percent of their votes since they won’t be in the place of deciding if someone will become the first-ever black president. The odds of Booker achieving all three of those goals at once seem long.

But if you’re Hillary Clinton, the smartest strategy is to stop any possibility of Booker, or another Democrat, making inroads among African-Americans by courting blacks early and often. And that’s what she’s doing.

A front-page story in the New York Times depicting the Clintons’ outreach to blacks is very politically helpful to the former first lady by casting her as working diligently to win over black leaders. It will make black Democratic leaders think about endorsing Clinton this year, as many in the party, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have already done. And it puts pressure on any potential rivals, such as Warren or Booker, to stand down in 2016 because they see no way of truly winning the nomination.

And it is smart advanced planning if Clinton is the Democratic nominee. One of the misnomers of the Obama era is that blacks have galvanized around the president because he is black. In fact, blacks have overwhelmingly supported every Democratic presidential candidate, white or black, since 1980.

But Democratic candidates, such as John Kerry and even Obama to some extent, often face criticism from black activists during their general election that they are taking the African-American vote for granted. It will be hard to accuse Clinton of doing that since her outreach to blacks started a full three years before Election Day.