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Author: Candidates can no longer ignore voters of color

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Author: Candidates can no longer ignore voters of color
Steve Phillips (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Steve Phillips)

For years, as the nation’s black, Latino and Asian population has increased, candidates for national and state office have largely ignored the growing power of voters of color. Although President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories provided concrete demonstrations of how the clout of those voters, when paired with white progressives, could win the presidency, many national and state campaigns continue to make what political strategist Steve Phillips considers an outdated play for white swing voters.

In his book “Brown is the New White,” Phillips argues that candidates ignore at their peril the growing base of voters of color that he calls the “new American majority.”

This year’s presidential race appears to lend credence to his logic. Bouncing back from her bruising 2008 defeat, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made an early play for the diverse voter base Obama relied on in his electoral victories. Not everyone agreed with the wisdom of her strategy.

“Hillary was criticized early in her campaign for targeting voters of color,” Phillips said in a phone interview with the Banner. “The New York Times had an article saying it was a risky strategy. Hillary owes her success and will owe the nomination to voters of color.”

Hillary Clinton’s play for black voters represented a break from the 1990s playbook that her husband Bill Clinton used, publicly dissing Jesse Jackson and Sister Souljah in an apparent attempt to appeal to more conservative white voters.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders followed Hillary Clinton’s lead, albeit late in the game, adding black staffers and lining up support from luminaries like Spike Lee and Rosario Dawson.

“He’s spent 30 years representing the whitest state in the country,” Phillips says of Sanders. “You could say he’s made a lot of progress elevating people of color in his campaign. He responded positively to Black Lives Matter protesters at his campaign events. But it was too late. Clinton has been at the game longer.”

GOP gains

While Democrats may be better poised to capture the New American Majority at the national level, at the state level, the GOP has done a better job, according to Phillips.

“Many of their statewide elected officials are people of color,” he points out. “The Democrats have been lulled into complacency by having Obama at the top of the ticket.”

While Republicans began pushing right-leaning black and Latino candidates like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Democratic strategists focused on the campaign innovations of the mostly-white team of strategists who helped Obama get elected, ignoring the energized black and Latino electorate that secured his victory.

“[T]he White House and Democratic political machine directed their attention to the wrong sectors of the electorate in 2009 and neglected the New American Majority voters who had put them in power in the first place,” Phillips writes. “As a result, progressives all paid the painful price in midterm elections in 2010 and 2014 when Republicans trounced Democrats from coast to coast.”

At the same time Republican strategists have backed candidates like Rubio, they also have been making aggressive plays to push restrictive voting laws that harken back to the pre-civil rights days.

“They have this dual track of seduction and suppression,” Phillips says. “That was the track they were on with Marco Rubio. He had a potential appeal. They were on course to present a threat to the Democrats.”

Facing what many see as an inevitable people of color majority in the United States, which some estimate will come by the year 2044, Republicans have been more focused on demographic changes than Democrats, Phillips says.

“In many ways, they were grasping these changes and methodically responding to them better than the Democrats,” he observed.

Race matters in Mass.

In Massachusetts, a state that is still 83 percent white, Democratic strategists still have not grasped some important lessons about voters of color in recent elections. Perhaps more than in any other race, the 2010 special election in which former state Senator Scott Brown won the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy underscored the importance of engaging black voters. While blacks supported former Attorney General Martha Coakley’s candidacy with 96 percent of the vote in some precincts, Democrats did little outreach in the black community during the special election. That low turnout in the state’s most reliably Democratic base was widely seen as a decisive factor in Coakley’s loss.

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren reversed that trend with a campaign that specifically targeted blacks, Latinos and Asians with paid staff positions alongside extensive voter outreach and mobilization efforts in her decisive 2012 victory over Brown.

Ironically, the very concept of the New American Majority had its roots here in Boston — one of the country’s most racially-divided cities in the 1980s. It was then that former State Rep. Mel King popularized the term Rainbow Coalition to describe the nexus of blacks, Latinos, Asians and white progressives he hoped to harness in his 1983 mayoral bid. While ultimately unsuccessful, the coalition he envisioned became the centerpiece of Mayor Thomas Menino’s electoral base, and, as the black, Latino and Asian populations grew over the next few decades, helped elect progressives like District Attorney Ralph Martin, Sheriff Andrea Cabral and incumbent Mayor Martin Walsh.

King’s Rainbow Coalition moniker lived on in Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and ’88 presidential campaigns. As with King, Jackson’s coalition was visionary, but too far ahead of its time. Nevertheless, Phillips argues, the Rainbow Coalition helped translate the energy of the Civil Rights Movement into Obama’s 2008 concrete electoral victory.

“To get from Martin in ’68 to Barack in 2008, we needed Jesse in ’84 and ’88,” he said. “It laid the groundwork.”

Political calculations

In the current presidential election, Phillips says the New American Majority can secure victory for the Democrats, but only if they play their cards right.

“At the presidential level, the biggest test will come down to the vice presidency,” he says. “It’s strictly a calculation of what you think voters will respond to. I would argue that in order to energize voters of color, they need to balance the ticket with a younger person of color for vice president.”

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