They will have turned 18 by Election Day. And they are more numerous and more liberal than swing voters.
by Melanye Price
After the last Democratic presidential debate, pundits were adamant that the candidates most likely to win were the centrists, particularly Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, that they had the special quality that could soothe the fears of swing voters. I hear very little talk, however, about how a centrist candidate will activate the Democrats’ base or inspire new voters to turn out.
But that’s how the Democrats will win in 2020.
By expanding the numbers of young people, people of color, L.G.B.T.Q. folks and progressive whites who vote, progressives can take back the White House. The Democratic Party should mount a campaign with a bold set of propositions that excite progressives and not those voters for whom racial fears can be easily exploited.
Next Nov. 3, seven million young people of color will have turned 18 since the last election. These newly eligible voters are primed for political participation after having consumed a steady diet of videos of racially motivated shootings and stories about the kidnapping of immigrant children. But their interest in politics is also thanks to the activism of groups like Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement and United We Dream.
This is the generation taking action on the climate crisis, living in the #MeToo era, happily and comfortably queer. This group is larger than the six million Obama 2012 to Trump 2016 voters, larger than Donald Trump’s margin of victory in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
And there is much more compelling evidence that we can motivate these young people to vote than in the party’s ability to forecast the sentiment of white swing voters — who voted for America’s first black president and then threw their weight behind the most racially divisive president in modern history.
Instead, the progressive political industry should invest in organizing and mobilizing young people of color. Grassroots groups and independent political organizations have already demonstrated the promise of this strategy.
The Alliance for Youth Action works year-round to turn out the youth vote through organizing on-the-ground. In 2018, one of its affiliates, MOVE Texas, got at least 21,000 new young voters to the polls in a state that has some of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country.
Students at Prairie View A&M University, a historically black college where I work, faced shortened early voting hours and last-minute changes in polling locations. Despite the obstacles, the number of young Texans who voted tripled from the 2014 midterm election: Just 8 percent of Texas youth cast ballots in 2014, while 26 percent did in 2018. The Democratic Party should get on board with these sorts of efforts.
Democrats need to focus on building the same kinds of coalitions that worked for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and in state and congressional races last year. This is particularly true given a recent Reuters poll that found that “people who rejected racial stereotypes were more interested in voting in the 2020 general election than those who expressed stronger levels of anti-black or anti-Hispanic biases.”
Few of the most popular Democrats elected to Congress after the 2018 midterms would meet the requirements of conventional “electability.” They won because they demonstrated a new way forward, offering bold ideas and a broad vision for how to make the offices they sought more equitable. And they were willing to deal with race directly.
Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor of Florida, lost his bid that year, but got much closer to winning than anyone expected. Recall how effective he was when he used this line about his opponent, Ron DeSantis, “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist — I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.” Democrats should use that kind of clever rhetoric against the president all over the campaign trail.
There is more good reason to keep doing what we did in the midterms. For the first time in decades, states in the Deep South are competitive. As the political analyst Steve Phillips noted in a 2018 essay that discussed Mr. Gillum and Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia:
Over the past 20 years, the best-performing Democratic candidates in statewide elections in Florida and Georgia have been Mr. Obama, Mr. Gillum and Ms. Abrams. (Hillary Clinton in 2016 was actually Florida’s highest Democratic vote-getter ever.) This year, Ms. Abrams dramatically increased Democratic turnout, garnering more votes — 1.9 million — than any other Democrat running for any office in the history of Georgia (and that includes Jimmy Carter, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton).
Ms. Abrams has said that “any less than full investment in Georgia would amount to strategic malpractice” by the Democratic Party. Doug Jones’s victory in the Senate special election in Alabama and Beto O’Rourke’s strong showing in his Senate race in Texas are also examples of the power of this electoral coalition and evidence that Ms. Abrams’s theory might include more states than Georgia. Were it not for voter suppression, more of these elections would have been victories and their electoral model more readily embraced by the party infrastructure.
There is also national data that suggests the Democrats don’t need this constant push toward more conservatism. The hyper-focus on Obama voters who defected to Mr. Trump in 2016 obscures the fact that more Obama voters stayed home or defected to the Green Party and Libertarian Party than switched to the Republican Party.
A larger and more pressing problem is that the party elites aren’t investing enough in youth turnout. And a growing number of young voters are identifying as independents or with third parties. This is at least partly because young liberals see the Democratic Party as trying to stake out a moderate position. Young voters are more diverse and more liberal than the rest of the population.
Of course, Democrats have to work to attract white voters. This is not a call for the Democrats to field only racial minorities at the top of the ticket (though there have been plenty of whites nominated without complaints about their race). This is a call for the Democrats to finally embrace who they are — the party that has benefited from the unearned loyalty of racial minorities and other groups that are often pushed to the margins of American politics.
Democrats need to acknowledge not just that there is a coming demographic shift, but that today functioning multiracial coalitions are seeing moderate successes across the country. With a sustained investment from the party and progressive elites — donors, strategists, consultants — these moderate successes could easily be expanded into a winning run for the White House.
Elizabeth Warren and Julián Castro seem most capable of running this kind of campaign. They both speak to the struggles of disadvantaged groups and have the ability to appeal to young voters with clarity and vision. While Bernie Sanders maintains his support among young voters who see his positions as the most visionary, he has made limited inroads in minority communities.
Mr. Biden has the opposite problem. He has support among African-Americans, particularly older ones, but young voters are less interested. Interestingly, Amy Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg, the youngest candidate, have chosen the more moderate path and are having trouble mobilizing people of color and young voters.
But this kind of effort really requires recalibration by the entire party, not just individual candidates. The party elites have to rethink where they invest their time and resources and whom they choose as local organizers in charge of getting out the vote. They have to do everything in their power to secure voting rights and ballot access, and should emulate the leadership of Ms. Abrams on this issue. Expanding electorates and wooing new voters is not easy. But the payoff seems worth it.
This can be a pivotal moment, where, for the first time in more than half a century, whites’ racial resentment is not the controlling factor in electoral politics. Imagine what our politics would look like if there wasn’t this constant vying for a voting population that has demonstrably weakened American democracy by choosing Donald Trump as president.
One answer is that Democrats would field candidates who offer a bold alternative vision of what America could be. Another answer is that the party would realize that inspiring young people of color is the key to the White House. Their seven million votes may be just what the Democrats need.
Melanye Price (@ProfMTP), a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University in Texas, is the author, most recently, of “The Race Whisperer: Barack Obama and the Political Uses of Race.”