Could a Black Democrat Be Best Positioned to Win in 2020?

A lot of ink has been spilled on arguments for how Democrats can win back Obama-Trump voters. Most often, pundits have assumed that meant winning back white working-class voters with a message that addresses their economic interests.

But Jamele Bouie offers a starkly different take. To get to his argument, he documents the changes in our most recent presidential elections.

[I]n his 2012 re-election race, Obama won a portion of whites with negative views of blacks. The reason has everything to do with the campaigns. Obama didn’t emphasize race or speak explicitly on racial issues. Neither did Mitt Romney. Race mattered, but white racial views—and white identity—weren’t as crucial to the outcome…

From the start, Donald Trump ran an openly racist campaign of agitation and disdain toward immigrants, Muslims, and black Americans, and likewise, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign emphasizing tolerance and racial diversity. They were asking Americans to vote on the basis of national identity: Who should America be for? In response, white voters sorted themselves according to their racial views: If you held negative attitudes toward blacks and immigrants, believed racial inequality was a result of individual laziness or cultural pathology, or thought nonwhites threatened the economic advancement of whites, you were more likely to back Trump. If you believed the reverse, you were more likely to back Clinton. Account for education, and the result is the same.

What we saw from both Trump and other Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms was a party that fully embraced the idea of running openly racist campaigns. So unless something drastic changes over the next year, that is what we’re likely to see in 2020—no matter who is the Republican nominee.

Because of the values espoused by the Democratic Party—and the fact that its base is made up primarily of people of color—you can expect its presidential candidates to once again emphasize tolerance and racial diversity. The question Bouie raises amidst the large pool of potential candidates is, “Who is the best one to carry that message forward?” He notes how the 2016 racial dynamics affected Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

In 2008, Clinton’s share of the black vote against Barack Obama was just 16 percent. Against Bernie Sanders in 2016, it was 77 percent…But it also came with a cost: In 2008, Clinton won the large majority of white primary voters who attributed racial inequality to “lack of effort”; in 2016, she narrowly lost them—and that carried over to the general election.

As Astead W. Herndon has documented, potential presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke and Sherrod Brown are reaching out to black leaders and testing messages for black voter outreach. They know that the pathway to being the Democratic nominee requires strong support from people of color. Bouie points out that “white candidates will face the additional task of demonstrating social solidarity—of showing that they understand the problems of racism and discrimination and empathize with the victims.”

That represents a potential minefield for white Democratic candidates. On the one hand, some of them don’t have a history of leadership on those issues and will be met with skepticism when their efforts don’t come across as genuine. On the other hand, Bouie suggests that their attempts could lead to the same problem Clinton experienced in 2016 when her efforts meant the exit of white Obama-Trump voters. That leads to a conclusion that might seem shocking to some people.

One possible implication of all of this is that black candidates may have the strategic advantage in the Democratic primary. Not because they’ll automatically win black voters, but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity. Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to the president’s racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.

I find that fascinating because it goes directly against the grain of how a lot of white people have reacted to the possibility of another black presidential candidate. I’ve often heard it said that, in the Trump era—when race has become so polarizing—another black candidate would be political suicide for Democrats. And yet, there you have Jamelle Bouie making a solid argument that it might be the most effective alternative.

While it is worth thinking about, I’d add a couple of caveats to Bouie’s argument. First of all, even back in 2008, our political culture didn’t allow Obama to stay silent on race. The whole Jeremiah Wright incident was blown up to highlight race, and Obama eventually gave a speech on the topic in response. Using Bouie’s own argument that white identity became the issue in 2016 in a way it wasn’t in 2008 undermines the possibility that black candidate in 2020 could simply embody a response to racism rather than address it directly.

Still, I think Bouie’s argument has a lot of merit. To the extent that Obama-Trump voters were animated by white identity politics, it is unlikely that any Democratic candidate—no matter what race—will be able win them back. It is also true that Hillary Clinton was not able to turn out black voters in the numbers we saw with Obama.

Finally, in the 2018 midterms, African American candidates like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Collin Alred, and Lucia McBath embodied a response to racism in the way Bouie describes—all while reaching out to white voters in their states and districts. When it came time to address racism directly, no one did it better than Andrew Gillum, perhaps because it is something black candidates have been doing their whole lives.

At this point, it is important to let the 2020 Democratic primary play out and allow voters to decide. But for a party that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, excluding candidates of color based on their race should be anathema. It might also be foolish.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.