African American voters steadied Hillary Clinton's campaign in the South and now are poised to propel her forward in a corridor of Northern industrial states where voting kicks off with Tuesday's Michigan primary.
Much has been made nationally of the power of Latino voters, but black voters actually had more pull in the 2012 presidential election, according to a study by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It found that African Americans accounted for President Obama's victories in seven states with 112 electoral votes — without which the nation's first black president would have lost the White House.
Among those states: Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Latinos, by contrast, determined the outcome in four states with 49 electoral votes; without them, Obama still would have been reelected.
Clinton enjoys overwhelming support among black residents across Michigan, the result of more than a generation of cultivation for her husband's political career and her own — and, not the least, her decision to join Obama's team after losing the Democratic nomination to him in 2008.
"She's real; there's nothing fake about her, just like Bill Clinton," said Mary Nelson, an African American woman from Detroit who watched the candidate speak Friday at a manufacturing plant.
Of African American voters, Nelson said, "we're looking for the real."
In Clinton's second run for the presidency, exit polls have found, she has carried black voters by huge margins, a consistent showing that drove her romping victories in South Carolina and other Southern states. In Michigan, one recent poll showed Clinton with a 70-plus-point lead among black voters, consistent with how exit polls showed she performed in Virginia, South Carolina and Texas.
In all of those states, Bernie Sanders' appeals have largely failed among black voters, despite his efforts to broaden his speeches beyond castigations of Wall Street and calls for free college and universal healthcare. His occasional criticism of Obama, on trade and healthcare, and his outspoken desire to move the party to the left of the president probably haven't helped.
Though the senator from Vermont has his strengths — his grasp on young voters is tight — Sanders' inability to break through with one of the most loyal Democratic voter groups nationally has denied him needed momentum.
An opportunity to showcase relationships with black voters will come Sunday night, when Clinton and Sanders will appear at a debate in Flint, a black-majority city whose water supply has been contaminated by lead. Clinton has made the situation a routine part of her campaign pitch. Two days before the New Hampshire primary, she traveled to Flint for an appearance with its mayor.
In her campaigning here, Clinton has emphasized the African American vote, without always being explicit.
On Friday, she spoke at the manufacturing plant before an array of workers who were almost all African American, forming a tableau of public support. The only noneconomic elements to her address were a plea for an end to matters that, as she pointed out, have disproportionately affected minority communities, such as housing redlining and failing schools, and a call to support those released from prison.
Afterward, she journeyed to Kuzzo's Chicken & Waffles in a historic black section of Detroit, where a portrait of Obama hung.
On Saturday, she met with 21 black ministers in Detroit, to whom she reiterated her alliance with Obama and promised to help threatened communities.
"We have a lot of work to do in our country, and it requires reaching out and lifting up, knocking down barriers, creating opportunities for everyone but particularly for people who have been left out and left behind," she said, reprising a line she uses in almost every speech.
She also criticized Republican efforts in Washington and many states to curb voting rights in ways that largely affect minorities.
"It is a concerted effort from not just the South, but also here in Michigan and other states, to constrict voting, to suppress voting," she said. "And you ask yourself, 'Well, why would they do this?' Because they want to limit who votes and make it more difficult for people to actually come to the polls."
"Our message has to be: No matter what barriers they put in play, we are going to help people overcome them. Go over them, around them — whatever it takes," she said.
Bill Clinton added his presence to his wife's effort on Saturday as he campaigned in Detroit, where 4 out of 5 residents are African American.
In some Southern states, black voters dominate the Democratic Party. In the Feb. 27 South Carolina primary, African American voters cast 3 in 5 ballots.
The impact of black votes in the North is somewhat less profound because African American voters make up a smaller percentage of the Democratic electorate. But black voters tend to be dependable, outpunching their population numbers.
In Michigan, for example, blacks make up about 14% of voting-age citizens. But Ed Sarpolus, a 44-year veteran of polling here, said it's possible that they could make up 20% to 30% of Tuesday's vote.
In Ohio and Illinois, where primaries will be held March 15, blacks make up a similar proportion of the electorate as in Michigan.
Clinton came into the state early and, working with existing relationships, locked up black and other minority leaders of labor unions, as well as many of their members. Her success is the reverse of her experience in 2008, when African Americans sided with Obama.
"There's been a whole turnaround and forgiveness," Sarpolus said, and key to that was Clinton's decision to serve as Obama's secretary of State. "The black community rewards loyalty."
Sanders, by contrast, "has not done much to go after African Americans here," Sarpolus said. "There's not been real engagement."