The evidence is in from the 2017 elections, and the verdict is clear—the constituencies that twice voted to put a black man in the White House remain the majority in this country. Democrats spent a year wailing and navel gazing as they tried to figure out how to woo Trump supporters, but it turns out that the way to win is to mobilize the New American Majority—people of color and progressive whites.
In the elections on November 7, Democrats carried the day in contests across the country. From Virginia and New Jersey to Montana to California—and myriad races in between—Democratic candidates swept to victory. What was the secret to all this success? Inspiring and mobilizing those people who are with us rather than trying to persuade those who support Trump that they made a mistake. In Virginia, 91 percent of those who approve of Trump’s performance voted Republican, but Ralph Northam nonetheless trounced his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie. In New Jersey, 87 percent of Trump supporters stuck with the Republicans, but Democrat Phil Murphy cruised to a landslide victory.
In Virginia and New Jersey, it was the “Obama coalition” of people of color and progressive whites—what I call the New American Majority—that propelled Democrats to victory. In both of those states, the Democratic candidates for governor lost the white vote but won the election because 80 percent of people of color supported them, providing the same kind of cornerstone that Obama enjoyed.
Despite 12 months of worried think pieces, high-profile initiatives, and expensive, poll-driven campaigns designed to appeal to the white working class, the levels of support for Democrats from that constituency barely budged. In Virginia, Northam received 26 percent of the white working-class vote, as compared to the 24 percent Hillary Clinton received in 2016. It is worth noting that Northam and Murphy both received a higher percentage of the white college-educated vote than Clinton did last year, but that could just be a statistical quirk reflecting a higher number of white Democrats turning out to vote than white Republicans. If that uptick is real, it was nonetheless among college-educated whites; in other words, not from the constituency that Democrats have obsessively focused on. The ceiling with the white working class is what it is.
The ability to win without picking up significant additional support from Trump supporters lays bare the fundamental fallacy underlying most Democratic and progressive strategy—the notion that Trump won and enjoys majority support. He didn’t, and he doesn’t. What happened in 2016 was not a mass defection of Democratic voters to Trump. What happened was a dramatic decline in black voter turnout (because of voter suppression, grossly insufficient investment, and overall lack of inspiration from the all-white Democratic ticket), combined with a splintering of the Obama coalition that saw statistically significant numbers of Democratic voters defect to the third- and fourth-party candidacies of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. Not only did Trump lose the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes; he also failed to garner a majority of the vote in the states that tipped the Electoral College vote—Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.
What does all of this mean for 2018? It means that by inspiring and investing in the core components of the Obama coalition, namely people of color and progressive whites, Democrats can capture control of the House of Representatives and replace Republican governors in key states such as Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Maryland, Illinois, Ohio, and Massachusetts.
In order to prevail, however, Democrats must celebrate and embrace the diversity of the progressive coalition in all its multicultural, multiracial splendor. It is time to reject the conventional wisdom that electoral success requires muting our identities for fear of further alienating those who are already so afraid of the country’s changing population that they put a hate-mongerer like Trump in the Oval Office. A proud turban-wearing Sikh man, Ravi Bhalla, was elected mayor of Hoboken, New Jersey. Two out transgender candidates—Danica Roem in Virginia and Andrea Jenkins in Minneapolis, Minnesota—won their races for state legislature and city council, respectively. The voters of Seattle elected out lesbian Jenny Durkan as mayor. Vi Lyles and LaToya Cantrell became the first African-American female mayors of Charlotte, North Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, this year. And despite the relentless demonization of immigrants of color over the past two years, Wilmot Collings, an African refugee, was elected as mayor of Helena, Montana (yes, Montana).
Celebrating the fullness of our nation’s radiant rainbow inspires people to participate and leads to the kinds of wins we saw on November 7. Apologizing for “identity politics” precipitates an electoral death spiral, because it doesn’t work to woo Trump voters, who will always opt for the real racist, and it also depresses the enthusiasm of the very voters we need to win.
Inspiring and investing in progressive Democratic turnout is the winning strategy, even in the 10 Senate races where Democrats are running for reelection in 2018 in states that Trump won. In seven of those states, more people voted for Clinton in 2016 than voted for the Republican nominee for the Senate in the last mid-term election. That means that focusing on getting out the Democratic vote is a far more promising course of action than striking a moderate pose. And in the other three—Missouri, North Dakota, and West Virginia—the Democratic incumbents enjoyed solid support long before Trump entered the political arena.
Especially in the states Trump won handily, the decision to vote for Clinton was a statement. Offering voters a vehicle to make that statement again is what’s required.
Lastly, winning elections isn’t just about inspirational words and impressive candidates. It’s also about the basic, expensive, and labor-intensive blocking and tackling involved in helping busy people overcome the many barriers to participation in the political process. Ample empirical evidence has proven that the best way to increase voter turnout is to work with trusted messengers to engage their friends and neighbors. That means putting money into organizations with credibility in communities of color and a track record of conducting effective electoral work.
One of the unsung heroes of the Virginia election is New Virginia Majority. Its co-director Tram Nguyen spent years coordinating a coalition of community-based organizations, and that work paid off decisively as people of color turned out to vote in record numbers this year. In 2018, millions of dollars should be showered on groups like New Virginia Majority—groups like One Arizona, which registered 150,000 Latino voters in 2016 in a state that represents one of the few Democratic senatorial pickup opportunities; New Georgia Project, which recorded the largest black voter-registration numbers in the history of the state; and New Florida Majority, which has organizers across the state communicating with hundreds of thousands of voters. There are similar over-performing but underfunded leaders in key states across the country (my organization, Democracy in Color, listed several such organizations, which we call Frontline Freedom Fighter groups, earlier this year in our report, “Return of the Majority”).
Perhaps the single most important takeaway from the 2017 elections is that we must carry ourselves with the confidence that we are the majority of people in this country. We should spent less time going hat in hand to try to understand the motivations of people who want to expel and ban Mexicans and Muslims from this country, incarcerate African Americans, restrict fundamental rights for women, and discriminate against the LGBTQIA community. As Democrats and progressives, we can govern in the interests of those people (that is, those who voted for Trump) by preserving affordable health care, access to higher education, and raising the minimum wage, but seeking their votes is a waste of time and energy, time and energy that’s required to get our voters—our majority—to the polls.
We must have less apology and more outrage. This monster in the White House and his enablers in Congress are destroying the country and the world. The appropriate response is outrage, anger, and, most important, action. Action to move our friends and neighbors to the polls so that we can take our country back. We’ve made a good start in 2017, and the results confirm the soundness of the strategy. Now is the time to redouble those efforts.