President Donald Trump has one talent— he knows how to talk to his base, even if his babbling is overwrought with lies. Nonetheless, Trump’s ability to rev up his supporters is a skill our current Democratic candidates have yet to master. In fact, the better question is why are the Dems so much more obsessed with Trump’s base rather than their own?
If Democrats continue to follow their old playbook, we will lose this country to Donald Trump for another four years. Black voters have long been believed to be the moral voice and called upon to rescue our democracy. Dating back to 1964, the Black vote gave Democratic nominee Lyndon B. Johnson the presidency, saving the country from the Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who proudly opposed the Civil Rights Act. Fast forward decades later, the historic turnout of Black voters in 2008 saved the country from the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. In 2008 and 2012, for the first time in history, Black voters came out in higher numbers than white voters.
Democrats need the Black vote to win elections and in an ironic twist, Republicans need the racial anxiety vote to do the same. Their inflammatory rhetoric harkens back to the Southern Strategy tactic famously used by Richard Nixon and Goldwater during their campaign for the White House to appeal to Southern, racist whites by creating irrational fears. Today, it has been reinterpreted in the perpetuation of the idea of “freeloading immigrants,” the myth of Black pathology and fake voter irregularities -- although judging by the disaster of the Iowa caucuses, the latter is an easy selling point.
Democrats struggle with the Black vote is already apparent after this week’s debacle in Iowa leaving former mayor Pete Butigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders in a virtual tie. The Hawkeye State has a small Black population and Black Iowians reportedly felt completely ignored by the candidates. If there isn’t an immediate come-to-Jesus moment, the Dems failures will only be exacerbated in the crucial South Carolina primary on February 29.
Even with this slow start, all is not lost. It is possible to turn things around. Here are five election pitfalls the Democrats must avoid by all costs if they have any hope in defeating Donald Trump in November.
Your Whiteness Is Not a Selling Point
When failed presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said she could talk to other white women because she is a white woman, her campaign was immediately dead in the water. Other candidates have hinted at their whiteness, or the other codeword, being from the Midwest, as Sen. Amy Klobuchar has employed ad nauseum, but doing so has garnered her no Black support. In fact, it is a blatant selling point that she and other candidates hope they will somehow convert white Republicans, but why?
Yes, Democrats need white voters but not in a majority. Whites have voted majority Republican in every presidential election since the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Al Gore all failed with the white vote. Even President Bill Clinton didn't nab the majority of the white vote and he won -- twice. Therefore, why would any of our current candidates think they have the power to convert whites who consistently vote along party lines? This talk of appealing to the majority white voter is delusional especially using code words like "the real America," "rural America," "the soccer mom," or "working class" — as if Black folks can’t be real, rural, working class, or soccer moms.
Selling their whiteness will not appeal to Black voters. This would be like Ben Carson telling his hometown of Detroit, “I’m Black — just like you, so vote for me.”
“Not all skinfolk are kinfolk,” to quote Zora Neale Hurston, and that line translates to the Democratic candidates courting Republican voters as well.
We Are Not All Equal Americans
Sen. Kamala Harris' run for the presidency was beat down with double standards that were rooted in misogyny and racism. She would have been an excellent president but a mistake that Harris made was her comparisons of mothers across social and economic status, stating, "Be it a mom in Compton or a mom in Kentucky – she's waking up, having the same concerns about how she's going to raise those babies."
The mom in Kentucky does not have to explain the racial wealth gap. The mom in Kentucky does not have to reconcile how even if her child gets a college degree they may not earn more than their white counterpart who only has a high school diploma. The mother in Kentucky doesn't have the “conversation” about why being shot by police is the leading cause of death for young Black men.
There is a tendency for Dems to push out the "we are all Americans!" theory. Republicans, on the other hand, love “otherism” and profit from magnifying our differences. Our current Democratic presidential candidates need to be more direct and attempt to show they have an understanding of the nuances of Black voters. Not saying Sen. Harris was never clear, but any sign of the "rising tide will lift all boats" theory will make you sink with Black voters.
We need specificity on a Black agenda and what each of the Democratic candidates plans to do in the best interest for our youth, elderly and everyone in between.
A 50-State Strategy Is A Losing Game
Sen. Bernie Sanders has been ranting for years about the 50-state strategy, where the Dems would commit to spending more time and money in traditionally red states. So much so, that he was in Mississippi in December of 2019, complaining about how President Obama only received 10 percent of the white vote. He claimed this showed the "very bad work" by Democrats and the belief that “90 percent of white people in Mississippi are not racist.”
I am surprised Obama even got one percent of the white vote in Mississippi. For a state that didn’t officially abolish slavery until 2013, 10 percent of the white vote for a Black candidate is a miracle. Nonetheless, Sanders insists on the mythical 50-state strategy.
The truth is, Democrats will lose in a 50-state strategy. Our presidential election is won on the electoral college and, sadly, the election is only decided by a handful of states. Using resources to get the white vote in states like Mississippi is a waste. Democrats win in swing states when Black folks come out in higher numbers. Therefore, they need big turnouts -- especially from the largest voting bloc, which is non-voters -- in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
When do you hear Republicans claim that they will win New York or California? They barely campaign in blue states and never talk about their "very bad work" of barely grabbing the Black vote or the love of voter suppression. Democrats can actually learn something from Trump: He passionately speaks to his base even if it’s lie -- like saying there is a “blue collar boom” when all the facts say no and farm bankruptcies are on the rise. Yet, he maintains a connection to his MAGA fans because they feel “heard for the first time.” How are Democrats going to make their most loyal voting bloc feel heard for the first time?
There is no 50-state strategy, there is only a Black strategy, which is basic electoral math.
Related: Mayor Pete Buttigieg: ‘I Think And Act On Race In A Way Very Few White Politicians Have’
Go Deeper Than Celebrity Culture
Whether it’s a major sports organization, a food franchise, or our racist President, some politicians and organizations believe we can be pacified with a well-loved celebrity. As Malcolm X said, “Show me in the white community where a singer is a white leader?”
This is not to say that celebs cannot be politically active, but the endorsement of a pop star or an athlete will not move the needle for Black voters.
How are they working for our vote? Are they pounding the pavement and knocking on doors in Black neighborhoods? Yes, Oprah Winfrey endorsing Barack Obama in 2008 was impactful, but this was a rare exception. She had never endorsed a presidential candidate and was arguably the most influential, non-elected person in the world.
Before President Obama had any celebrity endorsements, I vividly remember receiving a call from a friend who lives in my hometown of Philadelphia. She said, “This guy named Obama is in North Philly. Presidential candidates don’t come to North Philly!”
There were stories like this all over the country from Detroit to Cleveland, but I have never heard a soul say they rethought a candidate because of an endorsement from their favorite actor. Candidates need to be immersed in our communities and not just send their celebrity ambassadors with canned talking points to win us over.
Please believe, we are more than our celebrity culture.
Be a Fighter, Not a Lover
Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign was about leading with love. Hillary Clinton’s message was “Love Trumps Hate,” which seemed odd to have an opponent's name in your slogan. Trump’s messaging was a simple, media and racist friendly dog whistle, “We’ll build a wall! Mexico will pay for it!”
Democrats deeply struggle with messaging. Not saying they should lead with hate, but instead be concentrated on a strong, fiery message that invokes the image of a fighter, not a lover.
There’s only one Black candidate left in the presidential race and, unfortunately, former Gov. Deval Patrick’s presence is barely felt. The viable ones were arguably pushed out because they weren’t billionaires like Michael “Stop-and-Frisk” Bloomberg. If the candidates truly want the Black vote, they better show they know how to fight. We need intensity. Disappointingly, this election is not going to be about policy; it’s about persona. Hillary Clinton had tons of policies, but Trump’s policies were based on fiery rants like, “We’ll have jobs! Great jobs!”
Of course, Black voters are not a monolith and will respond to each campaign’s message differently. That said, we must all vote as a monolith against the threat of white supremacy, which is the clear and present danger of this current administration. If Trump’s first term was a disaster, the second term will be even more destructive. And vulnerable communities will suffer the most.
Moreover, we have to select our candidates and not wait for the candidates to select us. We must hold them accountable and demand specifics before they are elected officials. The endgame is to win and save our Democracy. The Black vote is vital to a Democratic victory. Let's see which one of these candidates is truly listening to us.
Clay Cane is a political commentator, award-winning writer and the host of The Clay Cane Show on SiriusXM.
(Photo by: Thomas Cristofoletti) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)