Democrats need candidates and consultants who know how to navigate the racially charged minefield that is the United States political landscape. If they demonstrate this cultural competence, they can turn the new American demographic majority into a lasting political majority. If they don’t, they will increasingly suffer crushing losses like those experienced on Nov. 4.
In June, we released “The Fannie Lou Hamer Report” which showed that 97 percent of the $514 million spent by the Democratic Party on consulting in the 2010 and 2012 cycles was paid to white consultants. In November, the party faced an electorate that was three percent whiter, while the percentage of black and Latino voters was down 1 and 2 percent, respectively, from the previous cycle, according to an analysis of exit polling. Asian Americans were also a percent less of the electorate in 2014.
Democrats lost many races that could have been won if there were more expertise in functioning in a racially polarized electorate. They lost these close races despite investing $60 million in a national turnout operation.
The lesson is bigger than the notion that if only Democrats used more consultants of color, they’d have done better. It’s that racial hopes and fears are deep-seated in the American electorate. It requires significant skill to succeed in that context. Not all people of color have that expertise, and not all whites are precluded from having such competence. But looking to those with the lived experience of those you’re trying to engage is a good place to start.
The bottom line is that building a multi-racial majority rooted in the country’s changing demographics means running toward people of color instead of away from them. Exhibits A and B of cultural incompetence in 2014 were how campaigns handled their relationship to the Affordable Care Act and our black president and his policies. The Obama administration’s signature achievement, the ACA, has improved the lives of millions of people—many of them in the communities of color. Moreover, President Obama’s economic policies have lowered unemployment to 5.9 percent. As the president himself famously said: “Make no mistake: These policies are on the ballot.”
But rather than defend these achievements, cowardice and caution prevailed. Driven by an obsessive fear of alienating white swing voters, candidates and their consultants refused to make the case for their achievements, and fled from the president. Take Alison Lundergan Grimes, who went to absurd lengths to avoid saying whether she’d even voted for Obama despite being a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Following this strategy, she ended up getting almost 100,000 fewer votes than Obama did in Kentucky in 2012.
Candidates like Grimes and Democratic Sen. Mark Udall in Colorado showed white voters they lacked the courage of their convictions and gave people of color no logical reason to turn out and vote.
Operatives with racial expertise would also appreciate that there are white voters who can be inspired to join the progressive multi-racial majority. That was shown in Arkansas, Alaska, and South Dakota where the voters approved minimum wage hikes while rejecting the Democratic candidates for Senate.
The Democratic Party committees, independent expenditures and environmental organizations spent more than more than $642 million this cycle, according to FEC reports as of mid-October.
It’s not enough to just look to consultants of color to run a few ads on black radio and Spanish-language television in the final few weeks of the election. Perhaps it’s time to spend some of those millions working with a multi-racial team of experts who understand race and culture to devise an effective plan to communicate with and engage voters of color.
Steve Phillips is the Founder and chair of PowerPACPlus and the co-author of “The Fannie Lou Hamer Report” with Dr. Julie Martinez Ortega. His forthcoming book on race and politics will be published in 2015 by The New Press.