The 2020 election showed that there is a right way and a wrong way for Democrats to try to win in states where they have historically lost. The extent to which they have learned those lessons will be revealed by the ways in which they pursue the winnable open Senate seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina next year.
The right way to enhance the prospects of victory is to work to recreate the multiracial Obama coalition that twice powered the first Black president to victory. The wrong way is to try to convince Trump voters to see the error of their ways and hope they will shift their allegiance to the Democrats.
I fear that too much attention is already being paid to the wrong way—particularly in my home state of Ohio, where Rob Portman’s retirement has created an opening and lots of opinions about how Democrats can win in the Midwest.
The Right Way
For too long, Democrats haven’t even tried to repeat Obama-era turnout, believing that the 44th president was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, never to be seen again. But smarter analysts who saw the movement that propelled the man understood that those voters would come out again and again if properly invested in and inspired.
That is exactly what happened in Georgia and Arizona over the past decade, and last November those states demonstrated that building on and expanding the Obama coalition of people of color and progressive whites can actually flip a formerly red state.
Achieving that kind of success doesn’t happen by accident. It takes sustained investment, at scale, over many years. You have to try, and you have to keep at it.
Take Georgia. Obama did relatively well there in 2008, without even trying, winning 47 percent of the vote despite spending no money to contest the state. Stacey Abrams did try, and her historic 2018 gubernatorial bid secured more votes in the state than Obama won, something unheard of for a midterm election. After that election, the Abrams coalition kept trying, dramatically expanded the number of voters of color, and won the state for Biden (who also didn’t try, but nonetheless benefited from the Georgia activists and organizers). And then that same coalition tried some more, won both Senate runoff elections in January, and flipped control of the entire US Senate from red to blue. As Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo recently explained in an article detailing their work in Georgia, “Years of planning, testing, innovating, sustained investment and organizing yielded the record-breaking results we knew they could and should.”
Out West, Arizona followed a similar path as Georgia and arrived at the same destination of Democratic success. Years of methodically registering, organizing, and mobilizing voters of color resulted in 253,000 more Latinos voting in 2020 in a state that Joe Biden won by 10,457 votes. No Democratic presidential candidate had won either Georgia or Arizona in over 25 years.
The Wrong Way
Then there’s the wrong way. Over the course of the past several years, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan has been a leading proponent of the wrong way. Ryan, who is likely to throw his hat in the ring for the Ohio Senate seat, made clear that his focus is on trying, as he put it in a recent MSNBC interview, to “capture those working-class people who may have voted for Donald Trump.” He recently diagnosed the dire situation of Buckeye State Democrats by saying that “80 to 90 percent of the problem is and has been the national brand, the perception of what Democrats believe and stand for nationally on the coasts, versus what we stand for as Democrats in Ohio.”
As someone who grew up in Ohio and now lives on “the coast” in the lefty San Francisco Bay Area, I’m curious about exactly what parts of the “national brand” Ryan bemoans. Were Black Lives Matter protests, for example, about coastal hot-button issues, or were they relevant to Ohioans worried about the well-being of young Black boys like 12-year-old Cleveland resident Tamir Rice, who was killed by the police?
Let’s call a spade a spade. Ryan is talking about white people. He certainly wasn’t referring to Ohioans of color—84 percent of whom regularly voted Democratic last year. The actual—typically unstated—critique is that Ohio Democrats can’t win because white Ohioans think the party is too closely aligned with people of color. Or, in Ryan’s formulation, candidates must show the Trump voters that the election “is about them” (emphasis in the original, at the 3:14 mark of the interview linked to above). About them. As opposed to caring about someone else, who is not like them and does not look like them.
Myriad case studies have now shown that white Trump voters are largely driven by racial resentment and anxiety about the country’s demographic changes, a phenomenon Joy Reid calls “demographic panic.”
Panic can drive voter turnout, and that is the under-appreciated story of 2020. While Trump lost support among some white women and suburban Republicans, he still increased his vote total by 11 million people. These were people panicked by the prospect of losing the leadership of the man working to make America white again. But, as the Georgia runoff election showed, without Trump on the ticket, Republican turnout dropped back toward typical levels, and the multiracial Obama coalition prevailed.
The problem Democrats face in seeking to secure the support of more white voters is not insufficient attention to economic anxieties. After all, if Democrats were so obviously not the party of working people, then why do so many people of color—who, given this country’s “staggering racial disparities,” have far more reason to be economically anxious than even working-class whites—consistently vote Democratic? The real problem facing Democrats in Ohio and other swing states is an unwillingness and inability to speak to the racial realities and demographic changes that animate white political behavior.
The way to win over white voters is not to downplay racial inequality and systemic racism but to confront it head-on and then highlight the common ground between people of color and their Caucasian countrymen. That’s what Obama did in his famous “race speech” in 2008 when incendiary clips of sermons from his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, inflamed the fears of white voters across the country. Obama—against the advice of his white consultants—grappled directly with the issue, telling white people that “your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.”
And then Obama won. In Ohio. Twice.
To be clear, challenging white voters to rise to their highest and best selves will not result in securing the support of the majority of white people. No Democratic presidential candidate has won the majority of whitessince Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, telling a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, “We shall overcome.” Even Senator Sherrod Brown, the unicorn success story of Ohio Democrats, peaked at 47 percent support from whites in his 2018 relection campaign (against an unknown and underfunded candidate).
While following the high road won’t win the majority of whites, it can win enough of them to win. There is a meaningful minority of whites who always vote Democratic, embrace rather than fear cultural change, and support the idea of living in a multiracial democracy. Even while losing badly in Ohio in 2016, Hillary Clinton still secured 33 percent of the white vote. But that meaningful minority only gets to become part of the majority when paired with large and enthusiastic support of voters of color. Or, as Jesse Jackson said in his 1984 convention speech, “when Blacks vote in great numbers, progressive whites win. It’s the only way progressive whites win.”
Biden rebuilt one part of the Obama coalition in Ohio, increasing his share of the white vote to 39 percent, close to Obama’s 41 percent in 2012. Where he fell short was with voters of color, who made up just 16 percent of the electorate, down sharply from the 21 percent share they comprised in 2012.
And therein lies the answer. The right way to win is to massively invest in increasing turnout of voters of color. Obama’s campaign deployed 800 staff people to knock on doors, identify voters, and get them to the polls. Georgia has nurtured a network of community-based organizations with a presence in every county in the state. Arizona has created a coalition of dozens of organizations spanning the entire progressive spectrum from labor unions to organizations working in the Latino, African American, and Native American communities.
Democrats can absolutely hold, and even expand, their majority in the Senate, but it will require learning the right lessons and following the right path. That is how the left can beat the right in 2022.