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National Politics|By Amy Walter and David Wasserman, July 10, 2015

Many analysts have devoted endless hours to pondering the Republican Party's woes with Latino voters and prescriptions for how the party can fix them in time for 2016. There's little doubt that the past decade's heated immigration reform debates have badly damaged the GOP's standing with Latinos, whom Mitt Romney lost by 44 points in 2012 and with Asian voters as well, whom Romney lost by 47 points. To add to the alarm bells for the GOP, Latinos were seven percent of all voters in 2000, eight percent in 2004, nine percent in 2008 and ten percent in 2012 - see a pattern? But while Latinos are no doubt an important persuasion target for the GOP, they may not be the minority group most likely to determine next year's outcome.

Rather, the key to 2016 may be whether Hillary Clinton and Democrats can motivate African-Americans to turn out in just as big numbers without Barack Obama on the ballot. According to exit polls, African-Americans were just 10 percent of the electorate in 2000 and 11 percent in 2004, but rose to 13 percent in 2008 and stayed there in 2012. In fact, in 2012, African-American turn-out exceeded white turn-out by two points (66 percent to 64 percent). And, while black turn-out has been on the rise since 1996, it is only in the last two elections -2008 and 2012 – where African American turn-out was even with white turn-out. Between 1996 and 2004, white turn-out exceeded African-American turnout by an average of seven points. From 2008-2012, black and white turn-out was essentially the same.

Turn-Out Rates Among Eligible White and African-American Voters

1996 2000 2004 2008 2012
African-American 53%57%60%65%66%
White 61%62%67%66%64%
% difference btwn white/Af-Am turnout+8+5+7+1+2

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, November Select Years.

But unlike the rise in the Latino vote, which can be attributed to a surge in population and voting eligibility over the last several decades, the last few cycles' record African-American turnout was attributable to a historic candidate with a historic ground operation to register and motivate the black community. So, in addition to asking, "What can the GOP do to win more Latinos?" we should also be asking, "What can Hillary do to keep black voters engaged?"

It's tough to overstate just how critical black voters have become to today's Democratic coalition, particularly when it comes to the Electoral College. Deconstructing exit poll data from 2012, African-American voters accounted for Obama's entire margin of victory in seven states: Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Without these states' 112 electoral votes, Obama would have lost decisively. African-Americans also accounted for almost all of Obama's margin in Wisconsin. All of these states, except Maryland, will be crucial 2016 battlegrounds.

But what about Latinos? As it turns out, Latinos accounted for Obama's margin of victory in just four states totaling 49 electoral votes: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. According to our number crunching, had ZERO Latinos voted in 2012, Obama would have lost the popular vote but still would have won the White House with 283 Electoral votes. Why? Because fairly or unfairly, Latino voters tend to be disproportionately clustered in states like California, Illinois, New York and Texas which simply aren't Electoral College battlegrounds.

To be sure, a return to pre-2008 African-American turnout levels wouldn't necessarily doom a Hillary Clinton candidacy, but it would leave her with a whole lot less margin for error in a host of swing states. For example, in Virginia, what if the African-American share of the vote had been 18 percent instead of 20 percent in 2012? We estimate Obama would have won by 1.6 percent, rather than 3.9 percent. In Ohio, what if it had been 13 percent instead of 15 percent? We estimate Obama would have won by 0.8 percent, not 3.0 percent. In Pennsylvania, what if it had been 11 percent instead of 13 percent? Obama's edge would have shrunk from 5.4 percent to 3.4 percent.

The surge of this solidly Democratic bloc has masked Democrats' downturn with working-class whites, who gave Obama just 36 percent nationally in 2012. According to our calculations, if the African-American share of the electorate were to drop two points in 2016, Hillary Clinton would need to do about 1.5 percent better than Obama did among all white voters just to offset that decline - a realistic goal, but one that would require reversing the party's current trajectory with whites.

Hillary Clinton does start with some significant advantages, however. She is overwhelmingly popular among African-American voters. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found her favorable ratings among black voters at 81 percent – that’s higher than her favorable ratings among all Democrats (75 percent), Hispanics (51 percent) or liberals (73 percent). Data from CNBC’s “All-American Economic Survey” has found that non –whites (this includes African-Americans and Hispanics) are also less pessimistic about the economy than other members of the Democratic coalition such as women, young voters and those making less than $50,000 per year. This doesn’t mean that non-whites are particularly ‘optimistic’ about the economy. But, they are less dour. And, that could help to keep them engaged in 2016. Finally, Clinton has campaign manager Robby Mook, who proved in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race that with a big budget and smart targeting, he could turn out low-propensity voters in an off-year election. While there’s no doubt that Democrat Terry McAuliffe was helped tremendously by a weak and easily-demonized GOP opponent, the fact that the Mook-led McAuliffe campaign was able to squeak by with a coalition that looked more like 2012 than a traditional off-year electorate was impressive.

The election is still a long-way away, but the combination of historical trends (elections to replace a two term president are typically very close) and our polarized electorate suggest that this will be a very competitive one. We also have to remember that these elections don’t take place in a vacuum. We can’t predict how much better or worse a Hillary Clinton will do among African-American voters – or white voters for that matter – without knowing who she will face in November. However, it’s also clear that the African-American coalition is THE critical keystone for a Democratic Electoral College victory, which means we should be spending as much time, if not more, looking at their engagement in the election as we do the growing Latino vote.