Barack Obama’s electoral success has shown the Democratic Party the value of a non-white candidate in driving turnout and enthusiasm among the non-white voters that are vital to the party’s success. So why are nearly all the statewide Democratic candidates this year white?
If there is one central theme to the political strategy of the Democrats and the electoral analysis and optimism of liberal pundits in the Obama era, it is race. To say that they are obsessed with these topics is to vastly understate the case. Virtually every analysis of “the Republicans’ demographic problems” and the long-term case for Democratic/progressive dominance is premised upon the rising share of non-white voters in the electorate and their identification with the Democrats. To be sure, these are not Republicans’ only challenges – even with younger white voters there are a few issues (mainly same-sex marriage and marijuana) on which the GOP is out of step with generational trends, and there is legitimate concern that younger voters of all races are less likely to be religious or get married, two traditional markers of conservatism. But even looking at the 2012 election returns, we see that Barack Obama lost white women by the largest margin of any candidate of either party since Walter Mondale, suffered a huge reversal among white voters under 30 (who he lost by 7 points after winning them by double digits in 2008), and even narrowly lost white women under 30. So, all of the Democrats’ advantages along gender and age lines are still really just symptoms of a racially polarized electorate.
And turning out that electorate has been a challenge for Democrats. The big turnout wave of African-Americans for Obama exceeded anything John Kerry or Al Gore was ever able to muster, and the midterm elections in 2009, 2010, and 2013 (with the arguable exception of the 2013 Virginia Governor’s race) yielded electorates that were older, whiter and more conservative than the 2008 or 2012 electorates (this was even true in 2006, although depressed GOP turnout and heavy independent support for Democrats made that a big year for the Democrats anyway). There has been much open fretting by Democrats that the turnout will look the same this year – which threatens to make this a serious wave year for Republicans, given the public mood. That’s even before you get to the fact that Democrats’ rising success with non-white voters has coincided with hemorrhaging support among white voters and the very real possibility that the Democrats haven’t yet found their floor among white voters. To say nothing of the possibility that the natural long-term arc of Hispanic voter preferences may move back in the direction of the GOP. In the immediate term, we have already seen polling showing that Hispanics are the most disillusioned of Obama’s 2012 supporters. Few things in a two-party political system are forever.
And there is a very real sense in which the big turnout of 2008 and especially 2012 was a show of racial solidarity with Obama (and his wife) personally, as much as it was a traditionally political phenomenon. There were all sorts of signs of this in the 2012 exit polls. Only 23% of voters in the exit polls said that the economy was in good or excellent shape, for example, but 90% of these voted for Obama. Who are these voters? A July 2013 Quinnipiac poll – somewhat typical of the breakdowns these days – found that 47% of black voters, but only 25% of white voters, described the for state of the economy as good or excellent. By contrast, an October 2007 CNN poll found 69% of black voters describing the economy as in recession, compared to 42% of white voters. This, despite the fact that the objective evidence shows unemployment significantly higher among African-Americans in 2013 than 2007.
But forget the data; listen to liberal African-American pundits. Here is The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, laying it out in the purplest of prose:
Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don’t expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama’s on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don’t expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again….I don’t ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again.
This symbolism has real meaning. What your country tells you it thinks of you has real meaning. If you see people around you acquiring college degrees and rising only to work as Pullman porters or in the Post Office, while in other communities men become rich, you take a certain message from this. If you see your father being ripped off in the sharecropping fields of Mississippi, you take a certain message about your own prospects. If the preponderance of men in your life are under the supervision of the state, you take some sense of how your country regards you. And if you see someone who is black like you, and was fatherless like you, and endures the barbs of American racism like you, and triumphs like no one you’ve ever known, that too sends a message.
And this messenger – who is Barack Obama – becomes something more to black people. He becomes a champion of black imagination, of black dreams and black possibilities. For liberals and Democrats, the prospect of an Obama defeat in 2012 meant the reversal of an agenda they favored. For black people, the fight was existential. “Please proceed, governor,” will always mean something more to us, something akin to Ali’s rope-a-dope, Louis over Schmeling, or Doug Williams over John Elway.
How does a black writer approach The Man when The Man is not just us, but the Champion of our ambitions?
Or here is the Daily Beast’s Jamelle Bouie, writing in the midst of that election:
The upside of making the race of the candidate an existential issue for African-American voters is, it’s a tremendous motivator to turn out to keep the symbolic leader in office. The downside is, it’s not easily transferable to other candidates – not to other non-white candidates for lower offices, and certainly not to a bunch of white politicians who look pretty much just like the people they are running against.
And yet, bafflingly, that is exactly what the Democrats are running in 2014. At this writing, the Democrats are running a candidate in 62 Senate and Governors’ races this fall (nobody has really stepped forward yet in the Nevada, Tennessee or Wyoming Governors’ races). And depending how you count the frontrunners, anywhere from 57 to 60 of those 62 candidates will be white (92-96%), and 47 to 49 of them will be white males (more than 75%). Let’s take a look at that roster of candidates, ranked by a very rough ranking of the competitiveness of the races (“1” being hotly contested races, “2” being races that will be contested but with a clear favorite, “3” being races that look lopsided and may end up being de facto cakewalks – this is giving the benefit of the doubt that a lot more races will be competitive than polling may suggest, but races like the New York and Texas governorships will be big-time battles even if the outcome seems pretty clear in advance). I also rated as at least a 2 every race with a Republican Senate incumbent who has a non-obscure Tea Party challenger. I marked with an asterisk the races in which the Democrats have a significant chance of ending up with a different candidate – for example, the one black female candidate here, Richland County Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson in South Carolina, is an obscure candidate with a white male opponent in a race so unlikely to be contested that there’s been no polling (I rate her as the frontrunner because she at least holds elective office, but with a primary electorate that ran Alvin Greene in 2010, you never know). One white male Democratic Senator, Brian Shatz, faces an Asian female primary opponent, Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who may well defeat him, and David Alameel in Texas is in a runoff with Kesha Rogers, a black female LaRouchie who wants to impeach Obama. On the flip side, the two non-white Democratic frontrunners for Governor, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras in Rhode Island and Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown in Maryland, still face significant white primary opponents – Rhode Island State Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler, respectively. So the number of non-white candidates could easily go down rather than up.
As you can see here, beyond Cory Booker (who faced a real race in October but as of now has no real opponent), not only are the Democrats running a virtually all-white slate of candidates in the marquee statewide races, just about every Democrat in a hotly contested race this year is white. (Protip to activists: somebody with the time to put together a graphic of all these candidates could have some fun with it).
Should that matter? Of course not. Does it? Look at the primary results from this week’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Texas – and you can see that white female abortion zealot Wendy Davis lost most of the Southwest Texas border counties – the places where Barack Obama did best in 2012 – to a primary opponent who has basically no campaign, but who had a Hispanic surname:
The GOP candidate, Greg Abbott, will not hesitate to send his Hispanic wife, Cecilia, to campaign there.
For a party so focused on “diversity” as a slogan and the turnout of non-white voting blocs as a lifeline, it’s hard to see why you would run that risk. Of course, a similar analysis of the leading Republicans would also show a heavily white, heavily male slate – but a little less so: Republicans are running two non-white incumbents in South Carolina, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott, two incumbent Hispanic Governors in Brian Sandoval and Susanna Martinez, and a Native Hawaiian gubernatorial candidate, former two-term Lieutenant Governor Duke Aiona, as well as a number of white female candidates. And more to the point, Republicans are already doing fine with white voters; they’re not the ones who are existentially dependent upon firing up non-white voters with racial appeals. Democrats are – and so their failure to recruit and develop more non-white candidates adds yet another cause for alarm in what is already shaping up to be an alarming election season.
And if the results are ugly, that may make the Democrats rethink running a 69-year-old white woman as their national candidate in 2016.
(NOTE: The original version of this article stated that Joyce Dickerson’s opponent in the race to run against Tim Scott had a felony record – actually, it’s Jay Stamper, who is running against Lindsay Graham, who has a felony record. I’ve corrected that as quickly as I could.)