“The Rainbow Coalition is like a quilt—many patches, many pieces, many colors, bound by a common thread.” I was in Atlanta, Georgia, at the 1988 Democratic National Convention listening to Jesse Jackson describe his vision for how a multiracial and explicitly progressive coalition of people of color and progressive whites could lead Democrats to victory across the country. Although Jackson’s bid for the nomination fell short, the surprising success of his candidacy—he won 11 contests and nearly tripled his delegate total from 1984—revealed the potential of a campaign rooted in the country’s demographic revolution.
Last night, Stacey Abrams took a big step towards fulfilling that potential in the South by winning the Georgia gubernatorial Democratic nomination. The implications of her win for progressive politics and the future of the country are revolutionary in terms of political strategy and approach.
What Jackson foreshadowed in 1988, Barack Obama accomplished in 2008 and again in 2012, when he won reelection despite garnering 5 million fewer white votes than he had secured in 2008. In the wake of the 2016 election, however, many Democrats have lost their nerve, and, in too many cases, lost their minds, allocating millions of dollars to the fool’s errand of securing support from the very voters who hated our first black president and everything he represented. The significance of Abrams’s candidacy is that she has stayed the course, and in doing so provided empirical evidence about how to win in a highly polarized, racially charged political environment.
Georgia has historically been a conservative state, because there were always too few people of color, and too few progressive whites, to sway statewide elections. That is no longer the case. In the 30 years since Democrats gathered in Atlanta for its national convention, the state’s population has grown increasingly racially diverse to the point where people of color are nearly a majority (47 percent) of the state’s population and 40 percent of all eligible voters.
Despite this demographic transformation, Democrats in Georgia consistently lose by an average of 230,000 votes. The strategic challenge is how to close that gap. Despite the proven success of the Obama model, conventional wisdom still maintains that Democrats can win larger shares of the white vote if they just increase their empathy for the anxieties of moderate white voters while decreasing the volume at which they champion racial justice. For example, Abrams’s opponent, State Representative Stacey Evans, based her candidacy on the belief that she could use the fact that she grew up in a trailer park to win more support from white, working-class voters than prior Democratic candidates could.
All of the empirical evidence, however, shows that there is a ceiling on Democratic support from white voters. Just four years ago, children of two iconic Democratic families—Jimmy Carter’s grandson Jason Carter and former senator Sam Nunn’s daughter Michelle Nunn—made statewide bids that sought to attract greater white support. Both of them ran into the ceiling of white support, garnering the same 23 percent of whites that supported Obama in 2008 and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter in 2014. In 2016, Hillary Clinton captured only 21 percent of the white vote.