Do Democrats needs a non-white candidate in 2020?

No.  And a big part of me hates the game of choosing candidates by what demographic boxes they fit into instead of the quality of their ideas and their character.  That said, Jamelle Bouie makes a compelling case for why Democrats might actually have an easier road if they nominate a minority candidate in 2020.

The case is strong because it is largely based on the terrific and definitive study of the 2016 election, Identity Crisis, by political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck.  This book is top-notch political science written in a way in which any politically-interested layperson can absolutely appreciate it.  It was definitely a hit with my PS 302 Campaigns & Elections students, to whom I assigned it for “book club” this semester.  And, I meant to write a post recommending it.  But, I didn’t, so that gets squeezed in here.

So, back to Bouie’s argument (and nice summary of main take-aways from Identity Crisis):

Before Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the relationship between white racial views and partisanship wasn’t as clear-cut as one might think. Yes, Republicans won the large majority of white voters who believed black disadvantage could be attributed to a lack of hard work or effort—a key measure in the “racial resentment scale”—but a substantial minority of white voters was part of the Democratic coalition as well. But once Obama was in office, whites—and especially those with less formal education—“became better able to connect racial issues to partisan politics,” according to a recent book charting these changes to American politics.

Still, in his 2012 re-election race, Obama won a portion of whites with negative views of blacks. The reason has everything to do with the campaigns. Obama didn’t emphasize race or speak explicitly on racial issues. Neither did Mitt Romney. Race mattered, but white racial views—and white identity—weren’t as crucial to the outcome.

This changed in 2016. And the way it changed has important implications for the upcoming presidential election—and the Democratic race in particular.

In Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, political scientists John Sides, Lynn Vavreck, and Michael Tesler provide a short but useful summary of what happened: “In 2016, the presidential campaign focused on issues tied to racial, ethnic, and religious identities and attitudes. The two candidates took very different positions on those issues, and voters perceived those differences. People’s attitudes on these issues were then ‘activated’ as decision-making criteria and became even more strongly associated with white voters’ preference for Clinton or Trump.”… [emphases mine]

In 2008, Clinton won the large majority of white primary voters who attributed racial inequality to “lack of effort”; in 2016, she narrowly lost them—and that carried over to the general election.

If this dynamic is just a Hillary Clinton problem, alleviated by choosing a different nominee, then Democrats running in 2020 don’t have to worry. But if it’s an unavoidable result of being pitted directly against the president’s racism, then there’s a problem, especially for white candidates.

Not because of something inherent to being white, but because—somewhat similar to what happened to Clinton—the increased salience of identity puts them in an awkward spot vis-à-vis the Democratic primary electorate. A substantial share of those voters is black and Hispanic, and many of them seek expansive solutions to the ills facing their communities, from draconian immigration enforcement to entrenched racial inequality. These voters are absolutely crucial to winning the Democratic nomination, and everyone running will likely appeal to them with concrete policies. But white candidates will face the additional task of demonstrating social solidarity—of showing that they understand the problems of racism and discrimination and empathize with the victims…

One possible implication of all of this is that black candidates may have the strategic advantage in the Democratic primary. Not because they’ll automatically win black voters, but because they won’t have to demonstrate the same social solidarity. Like Obama, they can stay somewhat silent on race, embodying the opposition to the president’s racism rather than vocalizing it and allowing them space to focus on economic messaging without triggering the cycle of polarization that Clinton experienced.

Anyway, interesting argument.  Read all of Bouie’s column and think about reading Identity Crisis, if you read political books.  And, if you don’t, but care enough about politics to read this blog, I urge you to listen to the authors’ interview on the Ezra Klein podcast.  Truly great stuff for understanding what happened in 2016 based on actual data and smart political science analysis, not blind punditry.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Do Democrats needs a non-white candidate in 2020?

  1. Stefan Haag says:

    I’m reading Identity Crisis now. I would highly recommend Lilliana Mason’s Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity, which explains how polarization is not about issues but about identities as racial, cultural, and religious identities have become aligned in our political identities. This leads to distrust and an emphasis on winning even when the parties agree on issues.

    • Steve Greene says:

      I don’t know if I’ll actually get around to Mason’s book, but I’m a huge fan of her work and I’ve listened to multiple interviews of her discussing it. Ezra Klein has done a great job promoting her insights. I also finally had the pleasure of meeting her at APSA– a great person as well as a great scholar.

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