One simple statistic highlights the folly of much of the Democratic Party’s strategy and spending. If every person of color who voted for Hillary Clinton in Virginia last year turns out to vote in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest on November 7, Democrat Ralph Northam could win without getting a single vote from a white person. Not one. And yet most Democratic strategists and donors overlook and undervalue voters of color in general and African-American voters in particular. As a result, Democrats are at real risk of losing eminently winnable contests in Virginia this year, as well as in myriad races in 2018.
In my book, Brown Is the New White, I titled one of the chapters “Blinded by the White” to bring attention to the reality that “much of the progressive movement and many progressive campaigns are still dominated by White leadership, fixated on White voters.” Since the last presidential election, this pattern has continued unabated with nearly all progressive attention focused on the white working-class voters who supported Trump in large numbers.
For all the analyses offered about the behavior of these voters in 2016, you hear almost nothing about the tactical and strategic decisions that led to the cataclysmic collapse of black-voter turnout. Of the first $200 million allocated by progressive outside groups for spending in 2016, zero dollars were directed to African-American voter mobilization. Zero. Despite the availability of multiple inspiring leaders of color in the mold of Barack Obama, the Clinton campaign opted to return to the days of fielding an all-white presidential ticket. In facing a Republican nominee whose candidacy was propelled by white racial fears and anxieties, the Democratic strategy was to largely ignore the racism and focus instead on Trump’s temperament. In the face of such neglect and disinterest, many black voters showed less interest in the election, and turnout plummeted to the lowest level in almost 20 years. A higher percentage of black voters turned out to vote for John Kerry than did for Hillary Clinton, and that precipitous decline cost her the pivotal states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania—and, as a result, the White House.
Rather than heeding last year’s wake-up call, Democrats continue to perpetuate this pattern of structural racism and implicit bias. Take the upcoming election in Virginia—a quadrennial political bellwether because it takes place the year after each presidential election. Smart electoral strategy should be predicated on empirical evidence and hard data, and the data in Virginia clearly illuminates the path to victory for Democrats. In off-year elections, turnout usually drops dramatically, lowering the threshold needed to secure a majority of the vote. Current Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe won the governor’s mansion in 2013 with about 1.1 million votes. It is the presidential elections that show the true size of the pool of progressive voters, and Clinton won nearly 2 million votes in Virginia last year. According to the exit polls, 53 percent of the Virginians who supported Clinton—1,047,518 voters—were people of color. That’s more than all of the people who backed the 2013 Republican gubernatorial nominee, Ken Cuccinelli, whose campaign garnered 1,013,354 votes.
The racial myopia in the Democratic ecosystem is revealed by analyzing how money is spent by campaigns and how money is given to campaigns. On the spending side, campaign allocations reflect a candidate’s true priorities. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Democratic nominee Ralph Northam has spent over $17 million as of October 1, 2017. Logically, if a majority of the target-voter universe consists of people of color, a campaign that wanted to win would spend a majority of its money trying to get those voters to the polls. But the Northam campaign’s biggest line item—nearly $9 million—consists of funds given to an advertising firm led by an all-white board to run television ads. These campaign ads attack the Republican nominee for his ties to the oil company Enron. What is the strategic rationale of such an advertising campaign? Clearly, those ads are not supposed to motivate African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color to take time from their busy lives to come out and support the Democratic ticket.
Meanwhile, organizations specifically focused on mobilizing black voters—who comprised 37 percent of all Virginia Democratic voters in 2016—have to practically beg, borrow, and steal for resources to engage the voters who form the cornerstone of Democratic politics. BlackPAC, New Virginia Majority, and other community-based organizations have managed to gather enough resources to conduct a $1 million black-turnout program, but that’s just a fraction of the $8–10 million that should be allocated to reaching black voters, based on their numbers and centrality to Democratic victory.
Another indication of limited cultural competence in campaigns is the failure to take advantage of the fact that the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor is an African American, Justin Fairfax. From Harold Washington’s Chicago mayoral campaign in 1983 to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, it has been shown that having a candidate from one’s community, particularly when that community bears the brunt of inequality, can be a motivating factor in increasing voter turnout. Given this, progressive donors and groups across the country should be showering resources on Fairfax’s campaign and featuring his face in campaign ads. Instead, Fairfax must be repeating to himself the words of the protagonist in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Environmental groups are anchor donors in Democratic politics, but many of them have shown minimal enthusiasm for Fairfax. In 2013, when the Democrats put forward a white nominee for lieutenant governor in Virginia, the League of Conservation Voters contributed nearly $100,000 to that candidacy. As of September this year, zero dollars have been given to the black nominee for the same office. Sean Parker, billionaire backer of Democratic candidates, has given more than $1.6 million to various campaigns in Virginia in the past several years—including $350,000 to lieutenant-governor candidates in 2013—but has given nothing to help Fairfax galvanize a core Democratic constituency.
Many of those funding and running Democratic campaigns have learned little—or, worse, learned the wrong lessons—about how to win in a racially combustible environment. Nationally, voters of color remain the cornerstone of a winning electoral coalition. In Virginia, Democrats don’t need any white votes (fortunately, there are at least 900,000 reliably Democratic white voters, making the math easier). But unless they enthusiastically embrace, engage, and invest in the communities of color, they run the risk of again losing elections they should win, in Virginia this year, across the country in 2018, and, God forbid, in the 2020 presidential race.