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OpEd: What Does the New Identity Politics Mean for Black Voters?

With the entry of Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race this week, we now have the most diverse set of bi-partisan candidates in our history. And the field is set to become even more diverse as we anticipate the Republican candidacies of Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson.

This is what we have come to expect in 21st century campaigns. Presidential candidates are beginning to reflect the rapidly changing diversity of our country. The more diverse our candidates are, the more opportunity they have to address the challenges and opportunities afforded to specific groups in America, including women, African Americans, Hispanics, the disabled and members of the LGBT community.

Considering the thin margins in national campaigns, connecting with voters based on a shared affinity should not be dismissed.

As a result, we should be prepared to re-define the notion of identity politics as affinity politics. Individual candidates will connect with communities based on their bios and experiences. Recent history tells us it’s not about pandering. It’s about winning.

Let’s appreciate that this idea of identity politics is nothing new on the left or the right in America. The difference is that, now and moving forward, we will likely have someone other than a white male –Barack Obama, Michelle Bachman, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio - who have natural, personal connections to a specific set of people and the capacity to voice the concerns and aspirations of those communities with authenticity and credibility. The opportunity for candidates to align with voters based on natural affinities is broader than ever.

This isn’t about candidates campaigning based on persona alone – “I’m a woman,” or “I’m an African American,” or “I’m Catholic.” It’s just no longer impolitic to amplify those elements of their biographies if it will attract more support. So, for example, the question is not should Hillary Clinton discuss the fact that she is a woman during the campaign, but when.

The increased diversity among candidates on the left and the right also means that, despite the racial homogeny among early primary and caucus states, the appeal to voters who are not white males will begin historically early this cycle. This is especially true because Barack Obama will not be on the ballot, and conservatives understand that more diversity among their voters means electoral success in national campaigns (see Ron Paul, Reince Priebus, etc.).

The opportunity for candidates to align with voters based on natural affinities is broader than ever.

Let’s take a look at two elections, one state and the importance of effectively mobilizing a broader diversity of voters.

Political watchers know that in presidential politics, as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. In 2004, John Kerry was one state and twenty electoral votes away from becoming president of the United States but lost the state to George W. Bush. Kerry arguably ran a very traditional, 20th century campaign focused on women and swing voters. Only later – much later – in the campaign were resources marshalled to attract and mobilize minority voters.

In Ohio that year, despite the impression that African Americans are loyal Democratic voters, Bush received 16 percent of their votes. If Kerry had kept Bush under 90 percent as Al Gore did in 2000, Kerry would have been much closer to winning Ohio and the presidency.

Fast forward to 2008 when Barack Obama served as the Democratic nominee. Not only was there an uptick in African American voter enthusiasm for the candidate in Ohio (11 percent of the overall vote), but Obama also captured 97 percent of that vote. He won the state handily, and, because of the permanent campaign engagement in Ohio during his first term, went on to win the state again in 2012.

Some may say the example of Obama and African American voters isn’t fair for obvious reasons. To the contrary it is the perfect example because the assumption cannot be made that historically underrepresented voters will automatically support candidates who share their ethnicity, gender or religion. Just as with traditional male candidates, the case has to be made that the candidate shares a group’s values, appreciates their culture, and understands the challenges and opportunities that await them as Americans.

The increased diversity among candidates on the left and the right also means that, despite the racial homogeny among early primary and caucus states, the appeal to voters who are not white males will begin historically early this cycle.

The bonus for any candidate is that once a level of authenticity and credibility is established, it can have tremendous returns. Considering that national campaigns in the modern era are often won by the thinnest of margins, connecting with voters based on a shared affinity should not be dismissed.

So, yes, this election cycle you will see Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and even Hillary Clinton connect with affinity voters as often as appropriately possible in the months ahead based on their personal connections with these communities, and this is a perfectly reasonable expectation.

What does this mean for African Americans? It’s too early to know. However, this is the new identity politics re-defined as affinity politics that, along with the rapidly changing demographics of our nation, will shape winning campaigns for years to come.