Consolidating Democrats: New Battleground Survey reveals a strategy for a governing majority
The following article by John Russo, former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University and visiting scholar at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, first appeared at cleveland.com:
In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are tied in battleground Ohio. This suggests a very close race in Ohio in the fall.
Economic issues, especially trade, led many former Democrats to cross party lines to support Trump in the Republican primaries. Many who hadn’t voted in recent elections joined them. We’re likely to see a repeat of this in November unless Democrats change their trade policies.
None of this should surprise Democrats, especially those in Ohio.
By Will Marshall and Ed Gresser
Populism has a checkered history, but that hasn’t stopped a new crop of American politicians from embracing it in reaction to the supposed scourges of trade and globalization.
Today’s neo-populism has right and left strands. Republican populism is mainly anti-immigration: Think Patrick Buchanan or Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Ariz). Democratic populism, personified by two newly elected Senators, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is vehemently anti-trade. The two strands converge in the person of CNN blowhard Lou Dobbs, who blames immigrants and corporations for either taking American jobs or sending them overseas.
U.S. progressives ought to think twice before adopting the “populist” label, and not just because it’s commonly hung on such noxious demagogues as Jean Le Pen, Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The homegrown American populism of the 1880s and 1890s–the horny-handed-sons-of-toil faith identified first with the People’s Party in the 1880s and 1890s and, later, three-time Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan–also is a dubious model.
The old populism, after all, was a curious amalgam of cultural reaction and worker-farmer radicalism, mixing calls for important democratic reforms–public regulation of corporations, the progressive income tax, labor union rights, direct election of U.S. Senators–with nutty obsessions like “bimetallism,” and nastier tinges of nativism, racism and religious bigotry.
A better model for today’s Democrats is the Progressives, who came after the populists. They agitated for fundamental reforms in government and society that went with, rather than against, the grain of industrial transformation and urbanization. That is why they succeeded where populists failed–in gaining power and governing.
Neo-populists are right to focus on growing economic insecurity and inequality in America. But they need to offer more realistic diagnoses of their causes as well as remedies.
Americans today face an economic paradox. U.S. industrial output is booming, consumers have their choice of the world’s goods, jobs are reasonably plentiful and unemployment is fairly low. But middle class workers simultaneously see their wages stagnating and old guarantees of security eroding–not only in the sense of stable jobs, but more fundamentally in their families’ security against financial disaster.
The combination is difficult for either party to manage.
On one hand it spells trouble for Republicans. Their tendency to discount well-grounded anxieties appears callous and out of touch. And the Bush administration’s answer to the global competitive challenge is principally tax cuts–‘more money back in your pocket.’ But that is irrelevant to fear of a sudden and sharp fall in income and security, especially when it favors the wealthy more than middle- and lower-income families. It is easy to see why the public gives the White House little credit for economic policy.
On the other hand, a phobic reaction to foreign competitive pressures carries risks for Democrats. Simply railing against the pain and unfairness of economic change didn’t work in Bryan’s time. (The Great Commoner, somewhat inconveniently, was an ardent champion of free trade.) It is likely to fare no better for today’s “Lou Dobbs Democrats,” as the tele-populist modestly calls them. They need only think back to the 1980s, when pessimistic rhetoric about decline and deindustrialization helped ensure Democratic presidential defeats.
Confronting the quandary, the center-left has fragmented into three main schools of thought: neo-populists who blame trade for economic woes; social Democrats who want to import the Nordic model of capitalism from Scandinavia; and progressive modernizers in the Clinton-Blair mold (like us), who want both to raise America’s game in global competition and raise the floor of security beneath ordinary working families.
The neo-populists, allied with industrial unions and a rump group of surviving protection-minded business lobbies, are convinced that foreign trade pressure is unfair and that the U.S. cannot compete against low-wage countries. A typical approach is to demand an indefinite halt to trade liberalization (a “strategic pause,” as Jeff Faux terms it) along with trade protection through tariffs on Chinese goods and strict labor-standards tests on all imports, and to rail against offshoring without offering a policy-based way to block it–because, short of somehow turning off the Internet, none exists.
Whatever its political utility, populism fails as policy. Higher labor standards in developing countries are a worthy goal, but they wouldn’t make countries with vast reserves of low-cost labor less competitive. And the experience of high-tariff U.S. industries like textiles and shoes gives little reason to believe new trade barriers would keep U.S. industries competitive. To the contrary, they would lower living standards and damage our companies’ ability to compete, by raising input costs, depressing the purchasing power of their local customers, and jeopardizing access to foreign markets just as America’s housing boom fades and we need to rely more heavily on exports to generate growth. Rather than offer a new path to the future, populism simply offers complaint.
A more sophisticated critique comes from what might be called the “social democratic” wing of U.S. liberalism. The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, for example, points out that trade is a much bigger part of European economies than our own–yet Europe has managed to avoid the job churning and worsening income disparities that have made globalization so contentious here. The reason? Europe has more lavish social welfare policies, more extensive labor market regulation, and stronger unions. Kuttner advises Americans to look to the Scandinavian model–the Danes are the popular flavor this year–in which solid growth rates and low unemployment coexist with high-wage policies and generous social spending. In this telling, America needs not old-fashioned protectionism but a healthy dollop of European-style social democracy.
Prospect editor Harold Meyerson likewise is no fan of free trade, but he stresses its impact on wages rather than jobs per se. He identifies the real problem as “global convergence of wages,” as U.S. workers lose bargaining power with employers thanks to shrinking unions and the surge of millions of low-wage workers from countries like China and India into the global marketplace; and the solution as a much enlarged form of global governance designed to create social democracy on a world scale.
But–even leaving aside the improbability of Americans voting in European tax burdens and state paternalism, or a global regulatory program–there’s a hitch. The U.S. social democrats seem determined to hold progress on trade liberalization hostage to highly ambitious and sometimes unattainable goals–a dramatic expansion of America’s welfare state; a miraculous revival of militant trade unionism; global governance mechanisms; and full implementation by low-income countries, enforced by trade sanctions, of labor and environmental standards which took Washington decades to develop. This means growth, efficiency, and trade reforms to help the poor must wait for a social-democratic millennium.
Which brings us to the third camp, the progressive modernizers. They reject claims that Americans can be shielded from technological and structural forces affecting the whole world, and hope instead to replace the industrial-era safety net with a new social contract that helps working Americans manage the risks of global competition and share in the rewards of growth. They agree with social democrats on a key point: as U.S. businesses and labor provide less security for workers, government must step into the breach and provide more.
Where they differ is in insisting that robust economic growth and open trade policies are not bargaining chips, but crucial policies for generating the resources and political support for a new social contract with American workers. They backed Bill Clinton’s trade liberalizing initiatives, which played a vital role in the prosperity of the late 1990s, support new trade initiatives that build upon Clinton’s work. But they also recognize that changing terms of global competition pose new risks for working Americans which demand new responses.
In short, they believe America must both fashion a winning strategy for global competition and build a more solid foundation of economic security beneath working families. The strategy can be summed up in four points:
- Trade liberalization remains crucial to growth, economic efficiency, rising living standards, and amicable relationships among great and rising powers.
- The integrated global economy and the technological revolution are the result of structural forces–economic reform in places like India and China, container shipping, the Internet–as well as government-to-government negotiations. Their benefits outweigh their costs, and in any case they will not be repealed.
- For workers, globalization brings risks, as many businesses can no longer provide the health, pension and other quasi-welfare state functions they did in earlier years. And independent of global competition, changing American patterns of work, with quick shifts among companies now far more common than careers at single firms, means neither businesses nor Wagner Act-style unions are as well-suited to providing these protections as they once were.
- Imaginative policies can ease these problems. Government should step in where businesses no longer can, ensuring that job loss does not mean loss of health care, pensions, or hopes for college and home ownership. And social institutions, in particular a reformed and reshaped labor movement, have an essential part to play in finding solutions.
Democrats in Congress can begin to craft an agenda based upon these premises this year. A progressive, optimistic-but-realistic-and-empathetic legislative program for 2007 would open markets, by supporting completion of the Doha Round with a grant of fast-track authority focused on the WTO rather than small-scale free trade agreements. It would simultaneously begin strengthening family security. Recognizing that unions and liberals are right to say the Trade Adjustment Assistance program is wholly inadequate to the modern scale of disruption, it would also draft a broader Economic Adjustment program open to all dislocated workers, including broadened support for health insurance and job placement services. Accompanying both would be a competitiveness package to extend R/D tax credits, bolster investment in basic research, and ensure that visa policy allows American businesses and universities to attract the world’s brightest students and scientists. As we write, Congressman Charles Rangel is leading a courageous effort to develop such a broad policy synthesis, beginning with a formula for approval of several pending trade agreements and revival of the Doha Round.
A modern Progressive presidential candidate, in turn, can use this agenda as a foundation for a much more ambitious social contract, including fundamentally changed domestic policies and modernized civil-society institutions. By 2010, this would include guarantees of universal health insurance, portable pensions, and new forms of insurance to ensure that job loss does not mean inability to pay college tuition and mortgages. It would call upon unions to adopt a new role for the decades ahead, modeled on the approach of their most successful colleagues abroad, such as the Scandinavian unions.1 Their memberships are the world’s highest and their attraction for young workers uninterested in conflict with employers rests upon through career development, unemployment assistance and job training and placement programs.
In the 19th century, populism faded and died–unable to preserve a fading agrarian order, and offering more complaints than realistic solutions. Bryan, its great champion, lost three presidential elections. Rather than take this as their model, today’s Democrats would do better to look again at the Progressives who succeeded the populists. They struggled not to preserve a fading agrarian order, but to update old political and social arrangements to meet the new structural challenges emerging from industrialization and urbanization. The Democratic candidate who offers the modern version of this program may well be the one who can win; and will certainly be the one offering the new social contract that anxious workers and a puzzled country need.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute and editor of With All Our Might: A Progressive Strategy for Defeating Jihadism and Defending Liberty.
Ed Gresser has served as Director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Project on Trade and Global Markets since February, 2001. In this capacity, he writes and speaks on the value of open markets, internationalism and social responsibility in the global economy. Gresser joined PPI after ten years of service in the Clinton Administration and as a senior Congressional staffer.
1For a discussion of alternative models for modern unions, see the recent TDS discussion.
By Amy Chapman
The months since the election have been filled with a variety of polls and opinions explaining why Democrats were able to sweep both the House and the Senate. In reality, each of the most commonly-cited factors–war fatigue, Republican corruption, a coordinated media effort and boots on the ground–contributed to winning this year. However, as we look deeper into the results, Democrats at every level of government won in this election, and it is clear that the Party infrastructure built early in states was critical to this result.
Besides the obvious change in congressional control, one of the most exciting–and important–results of the 2006 election was that Democrats won up and down the ticket in states across the country. Though most of the national focus rested on the House of Representatives and the Senate, the large number of Democrats who were elected to state legislatures, statewide offices, city councils and school boards will be of tremendous value to the Party and the nation for years to come. These newly elected leaders will function as our farm team for higher offices, as leaders for progressive policy, and as liaisons to a new generation of activists. The Party as a whole won in this election.
Critical to this success was the focus on creating a permanent Democratic Party infrastructure. State parties played a vital role in recruiting down-ballot candidates, training precinct leaders to implement a ground operation, and providing vital communications, research and voter file resources to candidates and to county and local parties. It was this ‘build-up’ of a permanent party structure that helped to elect the state and local candidates and support the many federal candidates who won or came close. In many states, the state parties provided the fabric that extended coattails beyond House and Senate victories and made sure that local candidates had the attention and resources they needed.
One example of this success was Kansas. The Kansas Democratic Party worked hand in hand with the Governor’s office, candidates, county parties, the national committee, faith organizations, and other allies and activists—including Grassroots Democrats, the organization I head–to make unprecedented gains at the local, state and national levels. The State Party knew what was happening on the ground, understood the electorate better than anyone outside the state, and used every tool at its disposal to win.
As a result, the Party kept the Governor’s office, picked up the Attorney General spot, increased the number of Democrats in the State House by double digits and beat a popular incumbent in the 2nd Congressional District–a race no one outside of the state was giving attention a month before the election.
In Indiana, the Democratic State Party was fighting on every level to rebuild after what had been a devastating 2004 cycle, in which the state had voted for Bush and Republicans had taken the Governorship, Lieutenant Governorship and the state House of Representatives. The state legislature then removed the dedicated funding source state parties had received, leaving the Party with a $750,000 budget shortfall.
Financial support from Grassroots Democrats, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and staff subsidies from the DNC Partnership Program—along with the political atmosphere in Indiana going into 2006–gave the State Party the opportunity to organize support for the strongest candidates early in the cycle. They were able to then build an efficient on-the-ground organization to mobilize voters on Election Day. In just two short years, the State Party was able to build a financially self-sufficient operation, take the lead in communicating the overall message to the electorate, coordinate events and field operations for candidates across the state, and lead the Party to unparalleled electoral success.
As a result, Indiana Democrats gained three Congressional seats, regained control of the state House, and are positioned to successfully defend the eight Democratic mayors in the state’s ten largest cities in 2007 as well as to field challengers in the two remaining mayoral races. Because the Indiana State Party remains fully-staffed, active, and focused on the long-term strategy of winning, more Democrats are competitive earlier in the cycle and on more levels than in previous years.
In Washington state, Democrats have steadily expanded their reach as the State Party built stronger ties to its volunteer community during the heat of the victorious, yet bloody, 2004 gubernatorial campaign. That year, the State Party was instrumental in delivering the win to Governor Christine Gregoire. The Party made the critical decision to insist on a recount, then assumed the debt associated with the recount and raised the necessary funds to cover its cost. They also provided most of the volunteer observers to staff the recount and shepherded the entire Democratic community through the effort, basically acting as the coordinated campaign leader for the recount.
The quick and able maneuvering by the State Party gave Democratic voters in Washington a vested interest in their party. This carried into the 2006 cycle with more grassroots candidates and volunteers participating in the election and more success at every level. Democrats in 2006 successfully defended Senator Maria Cantwell’s Senate seat, improved their majority in the state Senate and picked up seven seats in the state House.
The importance of early investment in states has been the subject of heated conversation over the last two years. The DNC’s “50-State Strategy” highlighted the importance of what Grassroots Democrats has been working on since January 2003.1 Strong organized state parties with professional staff and year-round operations will lead to more Democratic victories. While the results of the 2006 election will not end the debate, they have certainly strengthened the argument for building infrastructure and long-term investment.
What needs to be done before the next election?
Despite the progress that has been made over the past four years by Grassroots Democrats, and since the last presidential election by the DNC, we have really just begun the process of genuine state party infrastructure building. In contrast, the Republican Party has focused on building from the ground up for over 30 years. They have invested money and training in their state and local parties; recruited, trained and paid for key state party staff; and, most importantly, have made state parties an important part of their electoral strategy.
The 2006 election showed that investment by our side will work and that when Democrats talk to people in every county of every state, they listen. We need to make sure Democratic state parties are well-funded and reasonably self-sufficient in their fundraising. Although most states can use non-federal money to pay for up to 72% of their costs, most state parties instead principally rely on federal dollars from national sources in order to operate. By forgoing non-federal money, which ordinarily can be raised in greater amounts than federal dollars and from a wider variety of sources, state parties are using precious federal dollars for operational costs like electric bills and paperclips. This means there is less money to advocate for federal candidates and undertake direct voter mobilization during election season, which federal funds are uniquely able to underwrite.
Additionally, we need to make sure state parties have well-trained professional staff on a year-round basis. It doesn’t work to have a volunteer receptionist for 18 months of an election cycle and then a huge, temporary staff for the last six months. It especially doesn’t work if you want to elect Democrats up and down the ticket. The field and communications staff provided by the DNC was a good start in helping states build a strong, stable staff. However, we must continue to invest as a complete organization should consist of professional staff that is trained in compliance, communications, research, field operations, online strategy, political outreach, information technology, fundraising, and volunteer recruitment.
We need to make sure each state party develops clear goals and a detailed strategy to elect Democrats up and down the ticket using the best available targeting, enhanced voter files, and research. In addition, parties need to be at the forefront of both traditional on-the-ground field work as well as new forms of online grassroots mobilization in order to maintain an electoral edge.
Finally, we need to make sure that all Democratic elected officials and allied organizations are partners in building strong and useful full-time state party infrastructures. There is too much work to be done to leave it to one organization, the Governor or the Presidential nominee.
The only way to sustain the Democratic wave of 2006 into the next election and beyond is through dedicated grassroots action with state parties as the key building block.
1In contrast to the 50-State Strategy, which focuses on federal expenditures, Grassroots Democrats helps states with their non-federal expenditures in the areas of compliance, finance, online strategy and communications, technology, and political management. In compliance with the current campaign finance law, Grassroots Democrats and the DNC do not coordinate efforts but, by nature, work towards the same goal–strong state parties. For more information on federal and non-federal expenditures, visit www.grassrootsdemocrats.com/faq
Amy Chapman is Executive Director of Grassroots Democrats. She is a seasoned political strategist specializing in campaign management, coordinated campaigns, field programs, labor and constituency group outreach. Amy has extensive experience managing all levels of Democratic campaigns, including many local and state races in her native state of New Jersey, and in both federal and non-federal races throughout the country, from presidential to senate, and gubernatorial.
By Cornell Belcher and Donna Brazile
The 2006 midterm elections brought about monumental change in the nation’s power structure when Democrats, bolstered by the support of Black and Hispanic voters, took control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1992. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 8) made history when she was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House, and a record 87 women are now serving in Congress (16 in the Senate and 71 in the House of Representatives) plus three female Delegates to the House from Guam, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. Of the 74 women Representatives and Delegates, 23 are women of color (14 African Americans, 7 Latinas and 2 Asian Pacific Islanders).
Although the number of African American candidates elected to federal office did not change during the 2006 midterm elections, Duval Patrick was elected the first Black Governor of Massachusetts (the second African American to serve as Governor in the history of the U.S.). Record numbers of Black candidates ran for public office at all levels of government, and targeted races for higher office included Black candidates from both major parties.
White voters broke 51 percent to 47 percent for Republicans this past midterm election. As the white vote grows increasingly polarized, the outcome of more and more elections will rest in the hands of Black and Hispanic voters nationally. In this polarized environment, the ability of either party to win and hold together a majority coalition rests heavily on its ability to compete for and win over minority voters by both serving their interests and running more minority candidates.
The Republican effort to be a truly “big tent party” took a huge step backwards this November 7th. Despite making valuable inroads with the Hispanic community in 2004, and despite an unprecedented outreach campaign to minority voters in ’05-’06 that saw former GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman making speeches apologizing for the notorious race-baiting GOP “Southern strategy,” Republicans lost considerable ground among both Hispanic and African American voters this past midterm election. Democrats actually garnered a larger share of the African American and Hispanic vote in 2006 than they had in the previous election.
After losing ground with Hispanics in 2004, Democrats improved their performance by an astonishing 16 points among Hispanic voters in 2006. And while we thought Democrats had perhaps reached a ceiling among African American voters, they managed to improve their performance with Black voters by 3 points this past fall. Our ability to expand the base vote helped in several key battleground areas where we squeaked past Republicans in races that were toss-ups going into the closing week. Democrats were also able to improve their performance in the African American community despite the fact that Republicans fielded a number of very high-profile Black candidates for statewide office in key states this past election cycle.
In two states with major implications for the 2008 presidential race, Senate Republicans experienced major disaffection from African American voters as their support dropped by 6 points in Missouri, and by a startling 17 points in Ohio. This erosion is a profound step backwards given the fact that Republicans had such high hopes and employed such aggressive strategies for courting African American voters coming into this cycle.
Losing (more) Black voters
The Republican persuasion campaign targeting African Americans ultimately collapsed under the negative weight of President George W. Bush. In our post-election polling by Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, Bush ended the election cycle with a nine (yes, nine) percent job approval rating among African American voters. That is eight points below the job approval rating of Congress among African Americans. By contrast, in our national poll of all voters, Bush’s job performance, while low, was consistently higher than that of Congress throughout 2006 meaning that while voters as a whole were most upset with Congress, African Americans were most displeased with Bush himself.
On Election Day 2006, African Americans’ primary focus was a desire for change. In our post-election poll, when we open-endedly asked voters what was on their minds as they entered the polling booth to vote, a 32-percent plurality of African American voters said they wanted to change the state of the country or get Republicans out. Twenty-two percent said they were thinking about Iraq, 21 percent said they were thinking about who would do the best job, and 10 percent said they were thinking about the economy.
In this environment of intense dissatisfaction with the Bush/Republican status quo, the power of the Black Republican candidate to appeal and attract more African Americans to the Republican Party failed to materialize in 2006. In Pennsylvania, GOP gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann might have actually set Republicans back further. Even Senatorial candidate Michael S. Steele in Maryland–who presented the greatest threat to the Democratic hold on African American voters early on–ultimately failed to sever the coalition. Indeed, failing to garner even one-third of the Black vote, these high profile Black Republican candidates were simply outside the mainstream of Black political attitudes.
Democrats dodged a bullet this cycle, as few Republicans in tough races were able to escape the burdensome weight of President Bush’s albatross. But the story could have been very different. Early on in the year, Republicans were well positioned to compete for the considerable swath of African American voters who were questioning their support for Democrats and seeking alternatives. Heading into the summer of 2005, about three-fourths of the Black electorate nationwide said they would support the Democratic candidate in November 2006. While not a substantial drop from the 88 percent Kerry secured in 2004, Republican efforts appeared successful enough to at least have given some African American voters pause. That window of opportunity for Republicans soon closed, however, as the end of the summer saw the disastrous Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. And by our February 2006 poll, 83 percent of African American voters were once again supporting Democratic candidates.
While the Katrina debacle clearly undermined Republican efforts to court African American voters, there were plenty of other issues important to African Americans that proved problematic for Republicans. According to our internal post-election polling, health care, education, Iraq, the minimum wage, and the economy/jobs topped the list of issues that Black voters said most guided their vote. From wages and the economy to Iraq, Republicans were not on the same side of the issues as the broader African American community. In the summer of 2006, a 61 percent majority of African Americans wanted an immediate removal of all troops from Iraq. Consequently, Republicans were not well positioned to pick up African American votes.
Furthermore, over the past few years Republicans have attempted to win over African Americans by focusing on so-called “moral issues.” While that strategy may have reaped some benefits for them in 2004, Republicans, caught up in a culture of corruption two years later, found no traction on those issues in 2006, in part because they ranked among the lowest priorities for African American voters. Public exit-polling showed the economy (57 percent), corruption (51 percent) and terrorism (44 percent) were the strongest issues tested, while values and immigration (33 and 26 percent, respectively) fell toward the bottom of the list with Black voters.
The Rise of the African American Swing Vote
Early in 2006, our polling among African American voters in the battleground states of Missouri, Ohio and Maryland revealed the possibility of an erosion of Black base voters in the Democratic Party. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of Black voters in these battleground states were identified as persuadable swing voters, compared to 61 percent who were strong Democrats and 9 percent who were strong Republicans. Younger voters and men, in particular, are less wedded to the history of the Democratic Party and, therefore, more willing to do some comparison-shopping. This is especially true of independents and drop-off voters. The following graph illustrates just how up-for-grabs important subgroups of the Black base were back in the spring of 2006 in these states.
Early on in Maryland and Ohio (both of which had relatively large swing components), we initially felt that both Steele (Maryland candidate for U.S. Senate) and Blackwell (Ohio candidate for governor) gave some African American voters pause in their support for Democrats, and had the potential to extend Republicans’ reach statewide.
In Maryland, for example, there were an equal number of swing and base voters among African Americans (Strong Democrats: 43 percent; Persuadable/Swing: 44 percent). We cannot overemphasize how deeply Steele’s candidacy could have carved into the Democratic Party’s African American base (and taken him on to victory, considering he carried white voters in the state) if not for the implementation of a well-orchestrated Democratic persuasion program aimed at swing African American voters. A conventional GOTV-only communication program would have been particularly inept in both Ohio and Maryland, because the African American vote there (not to mention around the country) is increasingly undecided. In our polling, we found that less than a year out from the election, while 74 percent of African American voters in Missouri could be considered base Democratic voters, just 54 percent in Ohio could (that is, they were certain of their support and there was little chance of them switching their vote). The situation was even worse in Maryland, where just 43 percent of African American voters could be considered base Democratic voters.
All three states experienced some unique movement of African American voters when comparing the Senate contests of 2004 to those of 2006. In Ohio, African American voters moved in large numbers to the Democratic candidate. In Missouri, there was also some growth in African American support of the Democratic Senate candidate, although this growth was constrained somewhat by the high level of support African Americans gave the Democratic candidate in 2004. Maryland, however, shows that Republicans do have the ability to cut into the level of support Democrats normally enjoy if a credible candidate (someone who can at least argue that he or she can give convincing voice to the concerns and values of the community) is on the ballot and he or she makes an effort to court the African American vote. The 2004 results in Ohio also show this ability. If Democrats treat African American voters simply as turnout targets, it is likely that the results seen in Maryland this year and in Ohio in 2004 will become much more the norm, rather than the exception.
Nationally, turnout of all voters increased slightly from 2002 to 2006. And while the lack of 2002 exit poll data makes it impossible to make estimates of 2002 Black voter turnout, there is evidence to suggest that the Black share of the off-year electorate has held steady at 10 percent since 1998. It is reasonable to assume then, that Black turnout also experienced the same slight bump since 2002 that overall turnout did.
That said, Black turnout continues to lag behind overall voter turnout, though the gap appears to be shrinking. In 2006, about 38 percent of the U.S. voting age population turned out to vote, compared to about 34 percent of the Black voting age population. That gap of 4.1 percentage points, while wider than the historically small 1.4-point gap of 2004, represents a significant narrowing since 2000, when the gap was 6.3 points.
Perhaps the most important point to be made about Black turnout in 2006, however, is that there were several states where Black turnout increased significantly and had profound impacts on contested statewide Senate and gubernatorial races.
In Missouri, for instance, the Black share of the electorate increased from 8 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2006. That surge of Black electoral participation likely made the difference in Democrat Claire McCaskill’s victory over Republican incumbent Senator Jim Talent. Similar surges in the Black share of the vote also occurred in Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, helping to propel Democratic statewide candidates to victory. Finally, the increase in the Black share of the vote in Tennessee (from 11 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2006) likely made the Ford/Corker Senate contest closer than it otherwise might have been.
The real story of the 2006 election is the re-emergence of the Democratic Party as a national party, competing for voters in every section of the country among more demographic groups. Our current majority rests on Democrats’ ability to expand the playing field and compete strongly in all counties, states, and regions in 2006. This phenomenon reveals a roadmap for 2008 and should also call into serious question the wisdom of the traditional Democratic battleground-state strategy. Too often in past elections, narrowly casting our political net has left us hungry. The so-called “battleground-state strategy,” as it is currently constituted, not only makes Democrats captive to an increasingly small group of interests, but also effectively disenfranchises segments of the Party’s strongest blocs of voters. Progressives will not build an effective movement in this country until they broaden their strategies to allow for greater engagement and mobilization of Black and Hispanic citizens in the South and West.
Cornell Belcher is the founder and president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies and functions as the principal strategist on all of the firm’s projects. Belcher is experienced at campaign politics and has over a decade of expertise in quantitative and qualitative research, message development, and product and behavioral insight. His clients include the Democratic National Committee and the Barack Obama for President campaign.
Donna Brazile is Founder and Managing Director of Brazile and Associates, LLC. Brazile, Chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute (VRI) and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, is a senior political strategist and former Campaign Manager for Gore-Lieberman 2000–the first African American to lead a major presidential campaign. Prior to joining the Gore campaign, Brazile was Chief of Staff and Press Secretary to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia where she helped guide the District’s budget and local legislation on Capitol Hill.