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Black Women Voters Will Be Central to the 2020 Presidential Election, Experts Predict

Melanie Eversley

After black women delivered some notable advances for Democrats during last year’s midterm elections, they have emerged as a key voting bloc going into the 2020 presidential race.

In the wake of the general election last year, black women stand out as a demographic group with one of the largest voter turnouts. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 55% of eligible black women voters cast ballots in November 2018, a full six percentage points above the national turnout.

At least one political expert says that the presidential candidates will need to demonstrate a commitment to issues important to this group if they want their party’s nomination. Among those issues: equal pay and maternal health, says Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a group seeking to insure black women are part of the national political conversation.

“If you want to know what the possibilities for this country are beyond Trump, then listen to black women, who are extraordinarily engaged, who are following politics, who are the most likely to vote and bring our communities forward, and to support a broad-based justice agenda,” Allison told Fortune.

Allison’s organization hosted a national political summit that generated the likes of Democratic U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, as well as a forum featuring several of the White House candidates.

“If you enter into a campaign and you don’t already have established relationships with black women in particular, you are not going to be successful,” she said.

Black women voters are bolstered by the fact that at least one woman of color—U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California—is consistently polling in the top five among more than 20 major Democratic White House hopefuls. Last year, black women voters helped former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams come close to becoming the country’s first woman governor. And black women elected to the U.S. House last year helped the number of black women in Congress climb to more than 20 for the first time ever.

What black women want from the 2020 White House race is to have the issues important to them recognized by the candidates, said Glynda Carr, cofounder of Higher Heights for America, an organization seeking to corral the political power of black women and advance progressive policies. Carr pointed out that black women represent 4.1% of the U.S. House and Senate, but around 8% of the U.S. population.

“What we are looking for this year is a return in our voting investment,” Carr told Fortune. “We want economic relief, educated, healthy and safe communities, and although we are this growing political bloc, research shows that we are at the bottom of all the economic, social and health indicators. Frankly, we’re claiming our seat,” she said.

Black women have long been immersed in politics. During the push for voting rights in the 1960s, black women like student leader Diane Nash and late Martin Luther King associate Dorothy Cotton were at the center of sometimes violent demonstrations. Late U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat and first black woman in Congress, drew national attention in 1972 when she became the first black candidate from a major party to run for president.

The current surge among black women voters bubbled up around the time of former President Obama’s first election back in 2008, political experts say.

“Black women were the engine behind Barack Obama’s campaign built on election organizers and small-dollar donors,” Allison said.

“There was a surge in registration in the 2007-2008 period during the first Obama (presidential) campaign, so there are literally hundreds of thousands of additional black women on the rolls if you compare it to the pre-2008 period,” said Ron Lester, veteran Washington pollster. “And then, in 2012, even more were added,” he said.

In fact, in 2012, black women had the highest turnout of all voting groups, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplement. Just over 70% of eligible black women voters cast ballots in 2012, compared to 65.6% of white women, 62.6% of white men, 61.5% of black men and 59.2% of women of color overall, along with several other demographic groups that generated even lower numbers.

“The turnout of African-American women in 2012 was just extraordinary from a historical perspective,” Lester said in an interview with Fortune. “It was the first-ever example of when African Americans actually outvoted whites. Many were new voters. A lot of people called them Obama voters.”

Recognizing this power, more than two dozen black women elected officials and political activists—including Glynda Carr—signed a June 2017 letter to the Democratic National Committee saying they were the party’s most loyal base and they were tired of being taken for granted. In response, DNC Chairman Tom Perez vowed to engage more with black women.

That year, a couple of races made pollsters begin to look at how they collect data, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. They raised a collective eyebrow when Northern Virginia Democrats delivered a win in 2017 to Ralph Northam in the Virginia governor’s race, Murray told Fortune. In that same general election, Democrat Phil Murphy beat Republican Kim Guadagno in the New Jersey governor’s race.

By 2018, when black women pushed U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), to victory in a special election, pollsters were recalibrating how they model likely voters. The win made Jones, a former U.S. attorney, the first Democrat to win a Senate seat representing Alabama in a quarter century.

“In a midterm, there are certain groups that just don’t turn out … African-American women don’t vote in the same numbers as in presidential years,” Murray said. “In 2018, we saw groups that just don’t turn out (for midterm elections).”

Jones’ win materialized because Democrats recognized black women’s voting power, and at a time when Democrats were losing special elections, Allison said. Abrams recognized that black women were her base, Allison added. The strategy brought her within 1.5 percentage points of the Republican winner, former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, that some say argue Abrams should have won after allegations of voting improprieties.

“She (Abrams) basically said, ‘Look, here’s my base, and I’m going to have people on the ground who are going to start knocking on doors all throughout Georgia’ from 18 months out,” Allison said. “She flipped the script.”

Black women are generating surges in educational attainment and employment, and studies show people with the most education are the most likely to cast ballots. The Obama elections brought them out in droves, but then they kept voting, according to Lester.

“I think what we saw in Alabama with Jones is kind of an activation of the Obama voters,” the pollster said.

Pollsters said it is still too early to see how the figures will shake out on Super Tuesday or in November of 2020, however.

Right now, former Vice President Joe Biden is scoring the highest among black women, said Lester, who speculates this is primarily because of name recognition. But this could change, he said, and he predicted Harris could benefit from the fact that her home state of California has moved its primary up to Super Tuesday on March 3, 2020.

Murray said key primary states like South Carolina will be important to watch.

“I think that the candidates that have emerged as new on the scene have made at least some notable inroads—Harris, [former U.S. Rep. Beto] O’Rourke and [South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete] Buttigieg,” he said.

Looking ahead, there is lots of promise for black women on the political scene, according to Carr. For instance, Jennifer Riley-Collins, a civil rights lawyer and black woman, is running for attorney general in Mississippi. Stephany Rose Spaulding, a black woman, who is an educator and a pastor, is running for U.S. Senate representing Colorado.

“It’s progress,” said Carr, who would like for all candidates to learn how to talk to black women.

“The road to the White House has to stop at a black woman’s house—stop, have a cup of tea, and have real conversations around shaping a national policy that includes all women,” she said.

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