It’s hardly surprising that analysis of Barack Obama’s sudden viability as a presidential candidate dwells on race. He is, after all, a black man whose main source of popularity at present seems to be with white voters. Like Colin Powell, moreover, he is often described as a black man almost perfectly engineered to appeal to white voters, at potential risk to the “authenticity” deemed essential to attact the African-American voters who are so important in the Democratic presidential nominating process, at leasts when it pivots beyond Iowa and New Hampshire.Peter Beinert has an article up on the New Republic site examining the Powell parallel in detail, suggesting that Obama represents an implicit repudiation of other, more “authentic” African-American politicians, which could create a backlash among black voters generally. And last week Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post examined African-American ambivalence towards Obama, as reflected in his little-known congressional primary loss to Bobby Rush in 2000.There’s also the simple data point that national polls currently show Hillary Clinton trouncing Obama among black Democrats, which makes his overall robust poll numbers that much more remarkable.But while fascinating, these race-based takes on Obama don’t come to grips with the genesis of his startling appearance on the national political scene in August of 2004, when few Americans knew much about his personal story, or had experienced his “charisma” or marveled at his political skills. Ever since his famous Democratic Convention speech, Obama has been articulating what might be called the Great Alternative Democratic Message, and it clearly has some clout.What is that message? It could be described as “The New American Patriotism,” or “The Politics of Higher Common Purpose,” or “Towards One America,” or even “Meeting the Big Challenges.” But whatever the precise rhetoric, its core is to suggest that Democrats can and will lift politics and government out of the slough of polarization, culture wars, smears and sheer pettiness characterized by the Bush-Rove era, transcending party and ideology to unite the country around an agenda that really matters.This was the meta-message Stan Greenberg urged Democrats to embrace in 2004 in his pre-election book, The Two Americas. It was the original theme of John Kerry’s campaign, until Bob Shrum convinced him to shift in the autumn of 2003 to a message focused on the candidate’s biography (with fateful, perhaps fatal, consequences a year later). It was then picked up (or perhaps, according to insiders, accepted as a gift from former Kerry advisor Chris Lehane) by Wes Clark, whose campaign never really got its act together. And it was echoed in some respects by John Edwards, though his “one America” aspiration drew much less attention than his neo-populist “two Americas” indictment of the status quo.But this alternative message never got a full test until Barack Obama, at the time still a state senator, made it the core of his “Red, White and Blue America” speech in Boston. And it’s still Obama’s distinctive message.That’s one important reason for the half-submerged skepticism about Obama in some precincts of the progressive blogosphere, where all his talk about unity and civility sometimes sounds uncomfortably like the much-despised “bipartisanship” of party centrists. But it still strikes a chord in the electorate, I suspect.Obama must, of course, soon begin to fill out a more detailed message and agenda that explains exactly what Democrats should do to transcend the counter-polarization of the 2006 campaign and expand the party base, without repudiating principles or sacrificing unity. His success or failure in doing that may in the end have a greater impact on his candidacy than his alleged role in some great national psychodrama about race and identity.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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By Ed Kilgore
Sifting through more data from the 2022 midterms, there was one indicator that surprised and concerned me, so I wrote about it at New York:
As analysts pick over the results of the 2022 midterm elections, there have been a lot of mixed messages for Democrats. Yes, they performed better than you might have expected for the party controlling the White House, especially considering the president has underwater job-approval ratings. And yes, Democrats benefited from an unusually robust performance among young voters, who often don’t participate in midterm elections. But at the same time, Democrats didn’t significantly improve their performance among other key demographics, notably Black, Asian American, and Latino voters. As my colleague Eric Levitz observed, Democrats remain dangerously dependent on white college-educated voters who remain sympathetic to Republican economic messages.
Worse yet for Democrats, there is growing evidence that their single most loyal demographic group, African Americans, was underenthused in 2022. The New York Times’ Nate Cohn looked at the preliminary numbers and sounded the alarm:
“Georgia and North Carolina are two of the states where voters indicate their race when they register to vote, offering an unusually clear look at the racial composition of the electorate. In both states — along with Louisiana — the Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest levels since 2006.
“In all three states, the turnout rate among Black voters was far lower than among white voters. In North Carolina, for example, 43 percent of Black registered voters turned out, compared with 59 percent of white registered voters — roughly doubling the difference from 2018 and tripling the racial turnout gap from 2014.
“While similarly conclusive data is not available elsewhere so far, the turnout by county suggests that a relatively weak Black turnout was a national phenomenon.”
Low Black turnout in Georgia and North Carolina is especially significant because Black candidates (Senate candidate Cheri Beasley in North Carolina and Senate Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia) headed up the Democratic tickets in both states. It’s not like the old days when Black voters were being urged to support white conservative Democrats to thwart even more conservative Republicans.
If the signs of relatively low Black turnout in 2022 are accurate and representative, what do they mean? Cohn offers some possible explanations:
“Still, relatively low Black turnout is becoming an unmistakable trend in the post-Obama era, raising important — if yet unanswered — questions about how Democrats can revitalize the enthusiasm of their strongest group of supporters.
“Is it simply a return to the pre-Obama norm? Is it yet another symptom of eroding Democratic strength among working-class voters of all races and ethnicities? Or is it a byproduct of something more specific to Black voters, like the rise of a more progressive, activist — and pessimistic — Black left that doubts whether the Democratic Party can combat white supremacy?”
It’s possible to overinterpret Black voter trends. According to exit polls, the Democratic share of Black voters dropped from 90 percent in 2018 to 87 percent in 2020 and 86 percent in 2022 — not exactly a deep plunge. And some of the negative turnout trends may be attributable to voter-suppression efforts in Republican-controlled states rather than Black voter disaffection with Democrats. In Georgia, moreover, there are encouraging signs about Black early voting turnout in the U.S. Senate general election runoff contest between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker.
But any way you cut it, Democrats have both a practical and a moral responsibility to boost Black voter participation in elections going forward. In particular, President Joe Biden, whose nomination and election in 2020 depended heavily on Black support, should devote a lot of attention to rekindling the fires of affection in this critical segment of the electorate.