Racial minorities have been crucial to the prospects of Democratic presidential candidates. During the first four elections of this century, the party nominee’s share of the African-American vote averaged 91 percent. Support for the Democratic ticket among Latino voters rose to 71 percent in 2012. Common sense, especially without Obama on the ballot, should have caused the party to solidify those gains in 2016 with outreach and policy that would engage with the base and get out the vote. Instead the party squandered its foothold among people of color.
During the 2016 campaign and since then, the Democratic Party failed to connect sufficiently with people of color. It failed to craft policies that speak to the material inequality imposed on people of color, failed to allocate sufficient resources to outreach in communities of color, failed to cultivate grassroots organizers, and failed to directly address or challenge Republican efforts to suppress minority voters. As a result of these failures, Democrats saw dips in voter turnout and voter support among people of color — dips that were disastrously concentrated in swing states. In short, these missteps likely cost the party the presidential election.
“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia,” Sen. Chuck Schumer declared in July 2016. “And you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Schumer’s boast demands scrutiny not just because of the disastrous results in three of those four states, but because of the people it overlooked. It illustrated a fundamental assumption underpinning Democratic voter outreach: that to defeat Trump, the party could depend on white suburban voters and give short shrift to working-class voters — including the voters of color who form 46 percent of the party’s base.
This badly flawed assumption went much deeper than an offhand remark by a leading Democrat. The Democratic spending in the 2016 election focused enormous resources on white voters to the relative neglect of people of color. Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color, noted: “In spring 2016, when the progressive independent expenditure groups first outlined their plans for $200 million in spending, they did not allocate any money at all for mobilizing black voters.” While officials did spend some token funds on radio and digital outreach to black voters, major financial support for the sort of door-knocking and phone-ringing that has been crucial in countless races was limited — this despite the fact that a grassroots, person-to-person ground game is proven to be the most effective tool in getting would-be voters to the polls.
Inadequate outreach extended to Latino voters as well. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus critiqued the Clinton campaign’s strategy, saying it did not hire enough Latino consultants who had experience working within the communities that outreach efforts were meant to target. This shortcoming should have been addressed well before the campaign ramped up. In 2014, Albert Morales, then the Hispanic Engagement Director at the Democratic National Committee, proposed a $3 million plan aimed at raising voter turnout in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Texas. Despite the meager cost, the plan was nixed. “I just asked for what I needed,” Morales said. “I ended up getting closer to $300,000 and it all went to radio…. It was just pitiful.” (This $300,000 for Latino outreach in those five states ended up being less than a third of the $1 million the campaign-coordinating Super PAC Correct the Record pledged to spend on social media accounts to counteract anti-Clinton comments on Twitter and Reddit.) The lack of funding was compounded by poorly-timed spending; the Clinton campaign did not launch a sustained Spanish-language ad campaign until September, putting her well behind the calendar successfully implemented by the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012.
Clinton’s campaign also fell short in its outreach to Native Americans. Notably, Clinton refused to condemn the Dakota Access Pipeline, despite the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s land rights and major protests generating headlines in the immediate run-up to the general election. Robert Satiacum, a member of Washington’s Puyallup Tribe and a Democrat elector, announced before November 8th that he would not vote for Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College even if she won the popular vote. In his statement, he cited her poor policy and outreach to indigenous peoples.
Clinton saw some limited success in reaching people of color through outreach to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). While the Trump campaign was slow to mobilize its efforts among AAPI, Clinton’s campaign established an outreach arm in January 2016 and had the opposition playing catch-up.
However, the Clinton campaign’s relative success with Asian Americans stands in contrast with its generally stingy spending on minority voter outreach. Rather than invest in a coalition of people of color, Democrats spent lavishly on white suburban voters, as per Schumer’s formula. Advisors placed a particular emphasis on winning over 2012 Romney voters by pointing to Trump’s repugnant lack of decency.
That powerful Democrats employed such a strategy is perhaps not surprising in view of their largely white leadership, which has hired overwhelmingly white contractors during the past several election cycles. The party spent $514 million on contractors during the 2010 and 2012 elections, with just 1.7 percent of that going to minority contractors, by one estimate.
The Democrats’ ineffective paid outreach might not have been as notable had the party run with messaging that spoke more deeply and clearly to the material needs of people of color. Communities vote for policy proposals that address the realities of their lives, and thousands of activists are at the disposal of any presidential candidate who can convincingly respond to a racist criminal justice system and extreme economic disparity.
Dominating the news in the summer of 2016 were police slayings of black men like Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. While Hillary Clinton condemned those shootings and established personal connections to family members of other victims of police killings, some black leaders felt her platform fell woefully short in addressing the underlying realities that produce state violence and impunity. Black Lives Matter activists gathered outside the national convention in July to protest those shortcoming, among them Samaria Rice, the mother of slain 12-year-old Tamir. Rice was invited to speak at the convention on Clinton’s behalf, but declined. “[I want] a lot on the table, not a little bit of talk, a lot of talk about police brutality, police accountability, making new policies, taking some away, and just reforming the whole system. I think that would make me feel better, and no candidate has [done] that for me yet,” she said in an interview with Fusion.
Focus groups conducted at the height of election season show that Rice was far from alone, and emphasized growing mistrust of the Democratic Party among young black voters. A September 2016 New York Times poll showed that black voters, particularly young people, viewed Hillary Clinton as part of the political establishment, remained skeptical of her past support for a criminal justice system steeped in racism, and did not believe she fully embraced black activists, including Black Lives Matter.
Clinton’s shortcomings on racial justice reached far beyond the carceral state. Efforts to separate racial injustice from the economic status quo ignore the fact that the status quo disproportionately harms people of color. For instance, the typical white family is 16 times wealthier than a black one, and racism is systematically rooted in the U.S. economy. In fact, a study predicted that the median wealth of African Americans would fall to zero by 2053; another found that African Americans are the only group earning less than they did in 2000. Likewise, Native Americans continue to suffer disproportionately from the 2008 recession, and one-in-four Native Americans live in poverty. As Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute writes in “Racial Justice and This Agenda,” concentrated wealth puts already economically marginalized minority groups in direct harm — and colorblind approaches to economic policy fall short. While Clinton did strongly support race-based economic policies, her plan did not offer the kind of populist redistribution package that would have moved voters hurt by the current economic system.
Aimee Allison, president of Democracy in Color, wrote in retrospect that while the Clinton campaign trumpeted the 2016 platform as “the most progressive platform in our party’s history and a declaration of how we plan to move America forward,” its promises stopped short of offering sufficient change. Allison cited the People’s Platform put forward by a coalition of groups in mid-2017, praising it as “a suite of congressional bills that address a range of issues including Medicare for all, criminal justice, immigrant rights, and taxing Wall Street.”
Through their mangled outreach efforts and limited policy, Democrats failed to build on Obama’s success in mobilizing people of color. With Obama on the ticket, black voter turnout was at 65.2 percent in 2008 and 66.6 percent in 2012, the latter figure eclipsing the white voter turnout rate. But in 2016, the black voter turnout rate dipped to its lowest levels since 2000, slightly lower than John Kerry garnered in 2004.
Latino voter numbers tell a similar story: Latinos cast ballots for Clinton at a 66 percent clip, down 5 percent from Obama’s 2012 numbers despite Clinton’s opponent calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and placing a border wall at the center of his platform. Clinton did gain a marginal increase among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) compared to Obama’s 2012 campaign — 79 percent support of voters, compared to Obama’s 77 percent — but even that success comes with a major asterisk: Trump’s support among the AAPI community grew in key battleground states like Pennsylvania and Nevada, where both campaigns concentrated their efforts among AAPI voters.
On the whole, people of color were more likely to stay at home than white voters. A dip in turnout among voters of color is not surprising, given that Obama’s campaigns had resulted in historic numbers. But that makes the Democratic strategy all the more puzzling; 2016 was the perfect time to pour resources into outreach to voters of color and solidify gains from the Obama years. Instead, the party allowed that progress to fall by the wayside.
The numbers get grimmer still when the scope is narrowed to predominantly black areas in crucial counties like Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, Wayne County in Michigan and Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania, where Clinton’s tallies plummeted compared to Obama’s in 2012. If Clinton had retained votes in those three counties alone she either would have won the states or significantly cut into Trump’s razor-thin margins of victory. The importance of minority voters grows yet more vital when considering the Republicans’ “wildly successful” voter suppression efforts. Conservative legislatures passed laws that targeted millions of people of color in Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida — three states Clinton lost.
One year after the election, there are scant signs that the national Democratic Party leadership has learned much from the failures of 2016. Outreach efforts since then do not indicate a solid commitment to implementing new policies or strategies for more substantial engagement with people of color. The party’s spending to fight against voter suppression laws or for automatic voter registration has been dwarfed by its quest to gain the votes of registered Republicans. Yet “the turnout of people of color and progressive whites” is crucial, Steve Phillips persuasively argues, and that turnout will have a far larger impact on control of Congress than any marginal gains the Democrats achieve among Republican voters.
The hotly contested and incredibly expensive race this spring for an open congressional seat in Georgia’s Sixth District amounted to the party doubling-down on the fruitless pursuit of conservative voters. Democrats sought to flip the seat in a longtime Republican stronghold with the aptly named white-bread “Panera theory,” which holds that the path to victory for Democrats in the coming elections runs through affluent suburban white voters. Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff courted traditional Republicans believed to be dismayed or disgusted by Trump — voters for whom decorum, not policy, was the last straw. Just as the party had in 2016, Democrats poured seemingly bottomless funds into white outreach; they spent more money on Ossoff’s campaign than on any other House race in history, pulling out all the stops for the white moderately-conservative voters they wanted to believe were finally theirs.
Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel despite significantly outspending her. But even before the tallies came in, flaws in the Democrat’s strategy were clear. A big one was that it took voters of color for granted. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher lamented the tactic in a conversation with the Los Angeles Times. “We are spending the vast majority of our dollars chasing a shrinking, increasingly resistant, mythical swing vote as opposed to trying to hold onto the majority coalition that voted for us in 2008 and 2012,” he said. “I would argue that is a mistake.” He noted that more than half of African Americans feel the party takes their vote for granted.
There are all too many indications that the Democratic Party leadership and their messengers do indeed feel that people of color owe their votes to the party, particularly in the age of a Republican Party deeply aligned with white supremacists. This concept of indebted voters seems to lie at the root of Democrats’ refusal to develop policies and strategies that are responsive to people of color, and it seeps into the party’s messaging. For instance, in response to one of Trump’s most brazen acts of white supremacy, the pardon of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio in August, prominent Democratic media figures put the responsibility at the feet of recalcitrant voters for failing to defeat Trump, rather than party leaders who got their strategy wrong.
The consequences of such approaches have been grim for the Democratic Party. In the wake of the 2016 election defeat — and with the significance of voters of color set to keep growing in the election cycles to come — the party must hold up its end of the bargain with minority voters.