Black voters have driven the trajectory of recent Democratic presidential nominating contests more than any other voting bloc. This was the case in 2008 and 2016 primaries, where they largely united behind a single candidate — Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton. This year is no different. But the question is whether Democrats will earn enough of their support to win the White House.
Though Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton had strong showings among black voters in the primaries, their performances among black voters in the general elections diverged. Those voters are fundamentally different: Black general election voters are generally younger, less likely to attend church services weekly and less likely to identify as Democrats than their friends and family members who vote in every election. They are also more progressive than black primary voters.
To retake the White House, we white Democratic consultants should become intellectually curious about black voters. That starts with understanding the differences between and within these two groups and pinpointing what motivates them and what suppresses infrequent or nonvoters. Stacey Abrams’s campaign for governor of Georgia, which I led, took such an approach. The lessons we learned reveal insights that Democrats should apply to winning in November.
Something nearly unthinkable happened in Georgia in 2018. More black voters, more Asian-American/Pacific Island voters and more Latino voters turned out than in the 2016 presidential election. Sure, turnout was up everywhere and at presidential levels in many states. But Georgia was the only state where midterm turnout was greater than presidential turnout in each group of voters of color. Any political scientist will tell you this is not something that happens. Ever.
Here is what I suggest campaigns do if they want to scale this up across the country:
Understand the severe limitations of conventional campaigning categories of “persuasion targets” (white, suburban, female) versus “turnout targets” (African-American), shorthand that ultimately shortchanges voters. If we had run a typical campaign, a large majority of resources would have been spent on the relatively small number of “persuadable” white suburbanites, those likely to vote but not clearly affiliated with either party. But actual election results proved them to be largely Republican voters year after year. Instead, our core strategic imperative was persuading and mobilizing an enormous pool of new, infrequent or nonvoters of color and white liberals whom we saw as both “turnout” and “persuasion” targets.
Invest in quantitative and qualitative research about what messages and strategies motivate and dissuade unlikely black voters. And Democratic operatives must cease thinking of black voters as a monolithic voting bloc. We need to spend real money exploring the top issues, desires and needs of black voters and dive into all the cross-tabs with the same level of curiosity and focus as campaigns do with white voters — rural, suburban, urban; college, noncollege; men, women; young, old, middle-aged; regular voter, nonvoter, etc. We also need to explore motivation to vote and find out whether voting against Donald Trump is enough of a motivation. (Hint: It’s not.)
Explore what people know about the different ways to vote (by mail? early in person? on Election Day?) — even more important in this pandemic — so that we can tailor our voter education campaigns to address voters’ questions.
Embrace identity politics as an electoral necessity and moral imperative. Identity politics within a campaign means acknowledging that issues and policies affect communities differently, and different communities have different needs. This truth should be reflected in campaign policy plans, but more important, candidates have to talk about these differences directly.
Build diverse teams at every level. This is a core strategic imperative for winning. Any winning coalition across age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, economic status, region, education level, family status, ability and so on requires a team that can connect with and understand the extraordinary diversity of our electorate. In a state as big and diverse as Georgia, where people of color are on the cusp of making up a majority of the population, there is no single way to be culturally competent. This is true in many battleground states, and especially across the South.
Reject the cynical notion that mobilizing voters of color will lose white voters. This was a big fear we heard all the time with Stacey’s candidacy. Could a black candidate center a campaign on increasing participation by all voters of color as the main ingredient to victory, and also earn the support of white voters? Or would she scare all the white people away? Ultimately, Stacey won a larger share of the white vote than any Democrat in a generation. So I say yes, you can do all of these things. In fact, we must; it’s a requirement to building the broad and deep multiracial, multiethnic coalition that Democrats need to win.
Let’s take two issues we talked often about in our campaign: criminal justice reform and guns. Throughout the campaign, Stacey discussed both issues with all audiences, very much against convention. On criminal justice, sure, in the cross-tabs of our research, black men had ranked the issue higher than Latinos and women of all races. But white voters would talk to Stacey about criminal justice reform at events, and later it showed up unexpectedly in research about them.
For example, in a focus group late in the campaign, two “persuadable” white women brought up, in a group of their peers and unprompted by the moderator, the need for criminal justice reform. One woman said she didn’t want her son in college getting jailed for minor marijuana possession, adding that there are too many people in jail and it was a waste of resources.
Gun safety is an issue we were cautioned to avoid. Stacey spoke about the issue from the start, both about her personal experiences with guns (her grandmother taught her how to hunt) and her belief that we need policies to reduce gun violence. And she did this everywhere, including in Augusta at a labor union’s gun raffle where the audience was mostly white men. (This is true. I was there.) When she talked about these topics, she was authentic and direct, which allowed her to connect with all types of people, even when they didn’t agree with everything she said.
A great candidate with an authentic message and a plan isn’t enough to move the needle on turnout in communities Democrats have long neglected. That’s why we spent millions of dollars on layered voter education directed at registered voters of color, even if they didn’t have a history of voting or were fairly regular voters. We took no one for granted and made few assumptions about the “nonvoters.” After all, they were there on the voter file and had bothered to register. But no one had ever tried to talk to them. We put millions of dollars toward a volunteer organizing program and a large-scale paid canvass from the big cities to the small African-American-majority towns on the Florida border. To provide information on how to cast a ballot early, by mail or in person, we went big on digital ads, on TV from the popular evening news stations to BET; in small local print outlets; on radio and more.
Despite a scourge of voter suppression, Stacey came within 55,000 votes of victory in 2018, and much has changed in Georgia since. Metro Atlanta continues to grow, and people moving to the state are largely Democratic. More than 600,000 Georgians have registered to vote since 2018; half of them are voters of color, and 40 percent of them are under age 30. Nearly 300,000 new voters of color are projected to register by the general election deadline. With presidential-level investment, Georgia is positioned to be a true battleground state; up for grabs are 16 electoral votes, two Senate seats, two hotly contested congressional races, a state house majority and more.
My case for mobilizing black voters is not limited to Georgia nor to the South. While some pundits have presented the 2020 presidential election as a binary choice between “Blue Wall” states and more diverse Sun Belt battlegrounds, I reject that choice. The path to victory in both sets of states rests on turning out voters of color and black voters specifically. Black voters will be the margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and they are a large reservoir of electoral opportunity in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. Latinos and Asian-American voters are driving electoral wins in states like Arizona and Texas.
The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee understand the importance of black voters. That’s why they’re conducting a national voter suppression operation. While we can’t stop everything, we have to mitigate harm like we saw in Wisconsin with a mobilization and voter-protection strategy. But we also saw in Wisconsin how horrifying, intentional and gruesomely strategic Republican voter suppression does not always result in Republican wins.
We are facing an extraordinary election. It’s going to take more outreach, more voter education and more conversations about tough issues. This is the year to invest in black voters as never before. And if we do so, we will win.
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