Call it the “Cousin Pookie” vote.
When President Barack Obama pleads with African-Americans to get to the polls, he often invokes a fictitious family couch-dweller who’s more inclined to watch football than ever cast a ballot. And evidence suggests “Pookie” isn’t very fired up this year, creating angst for Democrats up and down the ballot.
When Hillary Clinton’s hand-picked campaign closer brings up Pookie, Professor Obama gives way to Reverend Barack. Talk about the importance of voting and the election’s high stakes gives way to a folksy call to action.
“So you’ve got to do everything you can this week. I know if you’re here, you probably voted,” Obama told a crowd Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida. “That means you’ve got to get your friends to vote. You’ve got to get your family to vote. You’ve got to talk to Cousin Pookie.”
The line always draws chuckles from the audience, and even from Obama himself. But it’s one of the most serious and important portions of the president’s final stump speech as party leader.
Clinton and other Democratic candidates need the minority voters who helped Obama twice win the country’s highest office to turn out in large numbers in key swing states. And Democratic operatives are increasingly concerned that black voters are not as, to borrow a line from Obama’s 2008 campaign, fired up and ready to go.
The first signs of Obama’s worries came two months ago, when he addressed the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner for the final time as commander in chief.
“After we have achieved historic turnout in 2008 and 2012, especially in the African-American community, I will consider it a personal insult, an insult to my legacy, if this community lets down its guard and fails to activate itself in this election,” he said. “You want to give me a good send-off? Go vote.”
‘Certainly a concern’
But initial early voting statistics in battleground states like North Carolina and Florida painted a troubling picture for Clinton and her party.
In the Tar Heel State, which Obama won narrowly in 2008 and dropped by a close margin in 2012, the number of African-Americans who had already voted was down 16 percent from four years ago. In Florida, the early voting rate for black voters had reportedly dipped by 10 percent.
In the Sunshine State, the number of blacks who have voted early in person is up from the number who did in 2012: Around 439,500 as of Friday, compared to about 368,000 at the same point four years ago, according to University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith.
The Clinton campaign on Friday reported a 22 percentage point jump among African-American early voters there when compared to 2012. But when campaign manager Robby Mook, on a conference call, ticked off a list of Democratic voting groups turning out in larger numbers than four years ago to vote early, blacks were omitted. Mook played up Clinton’s early performance among women and white millennials.
While the physical number of African-Americans who showed up at a polling place in Florida to cast an early ballot is up, as a percentage of the overall population, the figure is actually down. In 2012 with a few days to go, early black votes accounted for 21.5 percent of all early in-person ballots; as of last Friday, it was 15.2 percent.
“It’s certainly a concern [for Clinton and Democratic candidates] that early in-person voting among African-Americans is down,” Smith told Roll Call last Friday.
Political pundits of all ideological stripes say Trump must take Florida and its 29 Electoral Votes if he hopes to win the presidency.
In North Carolina, the Clinton campaign’s director of states and political engagement, Marlon Marshall, reported “sharp” African-American early voting increases from the last presidential race in a handful of counties. But he did not provide a statewide assessment; the same was true of Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa — all states viewed as still in play. And for states like Nevada, he didn’t even mention black voters.
‘A lot of interest’
Sen. Amy Klobuchar disputes the notion that early voting results paint a bleak picture for her party.
“I’ve been seeing a lot of interest,” the Minnesota Democrat said in a telephone interview last Thursday. “African-American voters are excited about Hillary. I think they showed that in the numbers they turned out in the caucuses.”
Clinton campaign officials told reporters last Friday that a “record” number of Americans have voted early. But a survey of 1,200 African-American voters conducted last week across the country by the African American Research Collaborative and Latino Decisions found 22 percent of respondents had already voted.
Of the 78 percent of black voters yet to cast a ballot, the poll found 86 percent said they are “highly likely” to do so. Almost all said they already had or would vote in congressional races, as well.
But Obama and the Clinton campaign clearly sense trouble. Coincidentally, “Cousin Pookie,” who had disappeared from the president’s stump speech for two weeks, reappeared last Thursday, just as the early voting data was setting off alarm bells.
“If you watch the actions of Clinton people, they’re clearly worried,” said James Manley, a Democratic strategist. “They’ve been trying to ramp up their outreach to generate more enthusiasm.”
Here’s why: African-American voter turnout rates climbed by 13 percentage points between 1996 and 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The sharpest increases occurred between 2004 and 2008, then again between 2008 and 2012. “Notably, among all race groups and Hispanics, only blacks showed a significant increase between 2008 and the most recent election in 2012,” the bureau noted in a report titled “The Diversifying Electorate.”
Clinton’s campaign this month has dispatched Obama to eight medium or large U.S. metropolitan areas in swing states that rank among the top 41 regions in terms of African-American populations. And Fayetteville, North Carolina, where Obama held a rally last Friday, has a population that is 41 percent black.
Obama let black voters hear his disappointment — and alarm — last Wednesday on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show,” a syndicated radio program heard on almost exclusively R&B stations with ample African-American listeners.
“I’m going to be honest with you right now because … we’ve got early voting, we’ve got all kinds of metrics to see what’s going on, and right now, the Latino vote is up. Overall vote is up,” Obama said. “But the African-American vote right now is not as solid as it needs to be.”
In places like Greensboro, North Carolina, Las Vegas, Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando, Charlotte and Columbus, Ohio, the president rouses crowds into a frenzy near the end of his remarks, then states his case that Clinton is a proponent of issues important to African-Americans.
“I’m not on this ballot. But everything we’ve done these last eight years is on the ballot. Twenty million people having health insurance is on the ballot,” he said at Jacksonville’s North Florida University, where black students, at 9.5 percent, are the overwhelmingly white (72.4 percent) school’s largest minority group.
Last Friday, Obama cited the civil rights era and a 100-year-old black woman who wrote him about her fight to get her voter registration re-instated in urging a largely African-American crowd in Fayetteville to help get out the vote.
“Increased Pell Grants are on the ballot. Fairness is on the ballot. Decency is on the ballot. Justice is on the ballot. Democracy is on the ballot,” he said, reciting what is a staple of his campaign speech. “And Hillary Clinton will advance these things, and Patrick Murphy will advance these things if you give them a chance.” (Murphy is a Democratic representative challenging Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida.)
But is that message getting through? Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, says no, telling MSNBC last Thursday night he sees no evidence that Obama is helping turn out the black vote.
Latinos: ‘Saving grace’?
Still, Obama and the Clinton campaign could be breathing a little easier. Last Thursday saw around 48,000 African-Americans show up to vote in Florida, the most since early voting started there.
Smith calls Florida a “glass-half-full, glass-half-empty” situation. That’s because the expected dip in black votes — driven by what some Democratic strategists have long said is an inevitable “enthusiasm gap” among blacks for Clinton when compared to their excitement for the first African-American nominee — will likely be offset by overwhelmingly Democratic Hispanic votes.
“On the glass-half-full side, Hispanic early in-person is up. … And as a share of the total electorate, Hispanic early in-person voting is up by 150 percent. … That’s the big story,” Smith said, calling the Latino turnout a “saving grace” for Democrats.
In addition, Marshall said the Clinton campaign feels “in a great spot” with independent voters, who they believe will break for the Democratic nominee.