There’s been a lot of talk about an enthusiasm gap between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in this election cycle: Every Democrat wants to vote for him and some reluctantly vote for her.
At least, that’s how the narrative goes. And it’s easy to believe if you’re a millennial—because it’s pretty true among your cohort—or, like many journalists, you spend a lot of time with elite white dudes.
But there’s another subset of the electorate that has been the story of the Democratic primary campaign: African-American women. More than any other demographic group, black women are the reason Hillary Clinton has racked up a 2 million-vote lead on Bernie Sanders and, more important, a 300-point advantage among pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
The bedrock of her winning campaign is African-American women, and, as a group, these women seem pretty damn determined to vote for her.
“They are the absolute heart of the party,” Jaime Harrison, the South Carolina Democratic Party chairman said of African-American women in a comment posted on Sidewire (the political communication platform I work for). “Hillary is their BFF.”
The connection isn’t lost on Clintonworld. Her last two major ads featured the “Mothers of the Movement” who lost children in killings involving police and ABC television luminaries Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, all of whom (in case you’ve been living on a television-free planet) are black.
It is not common for a presidential candidate to run ads that feature an all-African American cast — or, in the case of the ABC stars’ ad, a mostly African-American cast. Ellen Pompeo of “Grey’s Anatomy,” who is white, was also in the spot.
But it’s not unusual for Clinton to rely on African-American women. Over the years, her top aides have included Maggie Williams and Cheryl Mills, owners of two of the sharpest minds in the political world.
More compelling, though, are the numbers.
Consider exit polling from the dozen states where there were enough African-American Democratic primary voters to adequately survey both how white men and women voted and how black men and women voted.
African-American women supported Clinton at between 66 percent (Michigan and Illinois) and 93 percent (Alabama) in those dozen states, according to data on CNN’s Website.
In Mississippi, where Sanders didn’t pass the 15 percent threshold to win a delegate in two of the state’s four congressional districts, more than 40 percent of Clinton’s statewide vote came from black women.
Taken together, those dozen states account for a net delegate haul of well more than 300 for Clinton — that is, the states with substantial numbers of African-American women are the ones driving Clinton to the Democratic nomination.
Without getting too deep into the intricacies of delegate math, areas with high concentrations of reliably Democratic voters — think big cities with significant minority populations — award more delegates than regions of a state that provide fewer votes for Democratic candidates. That makes black women—who are more likely to vote than black men—a key to any Democratic presidential primary hopeful’s success.
There was a slight change in the pattern on Tuesday night. In at least four of the five states Clinton won, exit polls showed African-American men voted for her at a slightly higher rate than African-American women. Numbers for African-American men weren’t available for Missouri. But the new dynamic was true in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Illinois.
What does all that mean?
It means Clinton owes her standing in the Democratic race not just to African-American voters but, more specifically, to African-American women. More than any other set of voters, black women are propelling Clinton toward the general election. In the primary, that’s the most compelling enthusiasm-gap — even if it’s getting a lot less attention.
And, most important for Clinton, having an energized and mobilized base of African American women could be the key to winning swing states such as Florida, Virginia and North Carolina in November.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.
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