President Obama carries urgent message to Florida's black voters: Vote for Hillary Clinton

President Barack Obama shakes hands Thursday at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the University of North Florida arena in Jacksonville.
President Barack Obama shakes hands Thursday at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at the University of North Florida arena in Jacksonville.
Published Nov. 4, 2016

JACKSONVILLE — The arena, filled with deafening screams and laughter and budding nostalgia for the man on stage, suddenly grew still. "I know that a lot of you may feel cynical. There's a lot in this election that can make you feel discouraged," President Barack Obama said.

But he was not speaking to the more than 8,000 gathered Thursday at the University of North Florida. Obama was reaching for their friends and family, "Cousin Pookie" and "Uncle Jimmy" sitting on the couch watching World Series reruns. People for whom the negative swells of the presidential election have been paralyzing.

Get them to vote, Obama implored, repeatedly. "I'm not on this ballot. But everything we've done these last eight years is on the ballot," he said. "Decency is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot. And Hillary Clinton will advance these things."

The urgent message, similarly delivered a few hours earlier in Miami, was geared toward African-Americans. Black participation in early voting is down from four years ago in Florida and other key states, causing concern among Clinton's campaign, which is contending with a resurgent Donald Trump.

To reverse the slide, Democrats have furiously begun to roll out a series of radio and TV ads and are dispatching surrogates — none more galvanizing than the first African-American president — to areas with large black populations.

As Obama concluded his speech, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced it was launching radio ads featuring the president and Michelle Obama in several districts, including Tampa Bay, in an effort to spur black voter participation.

Consider that Obama won Florida by only 74,000 votes in 2012 and the issue is clear.

Through 10 days of early in-person voting, 15 percent of the nearly 2.56 million votes have been cast by African-Americans at early voting centers across the state. In 2012, through the Wednesday prior to Election Day, African-Americans had cast 22 percent of the nearly 1.4 million early in-person votes, according to Dan Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who tracks voting data.

In Duval County, home to Jacksonville, black voter participation was down 8 percent from 2012 in the same time frame.

There is time to make up the ground, including Sunday, when African-Americans traditionally leave church services to vote. Organizers in Jacksonville plan to fan out Saturday at a football game between rival high schools that is expected to draw thousands of spectators.

Black voters statewide make up 13 percent of Florida's electorate; in Duval they constitute more than 27 percent of all registered voters.

Hispanics by comparison are performing stronger than 2012, thanks in part to Trump's incendiary rhetoric, but Trump has drawn broad support from white voters and is feeling momentum amid continued questions over Clinton's use of a private email server. He has a nominal lead in Florida, which he must win to have any chance at the presidency.

Underscoring the stakes, Trump campaigned Thursday in Jacksonville, too. The share of white, early in-person voting in Duval County was 56 percent four years ago; this time it is at 62 percent, Smith said.

"With the race still tight in Florida, it's little wonder that Secretary Clinton has summoned President Obama to get out the vote in Duval County where she needs to keep the Republican margins tight. African-American voters in Jacksonville are key to keeping the county purple, and not deep red," Smith said.

Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and an adviser to the Clinton campaign, conceded: "We've got work to do there. It's very important. We're a 1 percent state. When you win by 1 percent you have to put all the pieces together, and it's a crucial piece."

He said he expects the numbers to improve as Election Day nears. Obama will return Sunday for an event in Kissimmee.

In North Carolina, another swing state, black voting is also down. An Associated Press analysis this week showed black voters have cast 111,000 fewer ballots than at this point four years ago, when Obama lost the state by about 92,000 votes. Obama campaigned there Wednesday.

To get the numbers up, Obama's message has to resonate with voters like 26-year-old Jasime White, a single mother of three in Jacksonville who struggles with family finances on her part-time job at a construction firm.

"I'm sorry but Donald Trump, I cannot vote for him," White said Wednesday afternoon, her car's back seat filled with groceries from Winn-Dixie. But just as quickly she said she feels no enthusiasm for Clinton.

"Why go down there and vote for someone who is constantly on national TV lying? You have Donald Trump lying. Hillary Clinton lying. They want us to give them a vote but nothing will change," White said.

Down the street, Rameisha Jones, 27, was working outside an early voting site on the city's north side and confirmed turnout has been slow. She said Clinton hasn't offered an inspiring message.

"She needs to say more about her plans and not just talk about Trump." Indeed, a number of black residents said they were turned off by the negative barrage of ads.

Erica McDougal, 38, walked out of the building after voting for Clinton. "Trump's too hot-headed and he's all about himself," she said.

While Trump has sought to cast urban blacks as trapped by Democratic policies, McDougal said her life has improved under Obama. In 2008 she got a trucking job. In 2011, she purchased her first home with the help of an $8,000 federal tax credit. She has enough money now to make the occasional vacation.

"Voting for Obama," she said, "was a pivotal moment in my life." Clinton, she said, "is certainly decent" though she said she wasn't wild about the choice.

Democrats say it's unreasonable to expect Clinton to generate the same level of support as did the first African-American president.

"They see the value in having Hillary Clinton as president, but they don't feel the same sense of urgency. That's not a negative toward Hillary, it's just the nature of the how things are," said state Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville.