Democratic Candidates Are Ignoring the Most Important Voting Blocs

To secure the presidential nomination, it would be wise to center the needs of young, unmarried voters of color.

[Photo: A young, Black woman holds up an 'I voted' sticker as she smiles.]
Ninety-two percent of Black women voted Democrat in the 2018 midterm elections, and they also make up significant shares of the citizen voter-age population in states like Mississippi and Georgia, yet double as the target of voter suppression efforts in their states. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

As Democratic presidential candidates vie for space on the 2020 ticket, the country’s electoral map is shifting. Voters eligible to cast a ballot in the next presidential election include more people of color, young people of all races, and unmarried women of all races than ever before—in 2018, there were 142 million, or 62 percent of eligible voters in the country.

Still, most candidates have only mentioned these voting blocs when they feel the context merits, like on university and college campuses and at political events where a majority of the audience are people of color. Their primary focus, historically and in this race, is time spent addressing older, moderate white voters—the “middle” and “white working” class—whose votes they believe are the most coveted in the era of Trump, but account for a smaller share of the electorate. If a candidate wants the nomination, they would be wise to center the needs of those who have been ignored by “mainstream” politicians in broader “mainstream” sociocultural spaces.

This powerful group of unmarried people is delaying child-rearing and almost half of are women of color. They are considered the Rising American Electorate, according to the Voter Participation Center, a nonprofit focused on voter registration.

In the past, these groups cast their ballots for Democrats in part because their quality of life tends to be improved by the left’s policies. Economic changes to increase wages and employment opportunities are especially compelling to unmarried women, for example—half of unmarried women earn less than $50,000 annually, and have higher rates of unemployment and fewer savings than their married counterparts. And of the unmarried “rising” young electorate, 40 percent are women of color, who face more economical, social, and political obstacles than their married and partnered white peers. In 2016, journalist Rebecca Traister wrote that unmarried women were “the most potent political force in America,” but were also among the least activated voters.

Unmarried women overall cast fewer ballots than married women and married men despite their support for Democratic policies, according to NPR data spanning six elections. In the 2016 presidential election, of the two-thirds of unmarried women who were registered to vote, only 57 percent actually went to the polls, compared with 70 percent of married women.

In that election, 66 percent of eligible Black women voted—a percentage similarly last seen in 2004, when close to 64 percent of eligible Black women voted. This group constitutes the “largest and most politically active demographic of women of color voters,” according to the Center for American Progress (CAP). Latinas are the second-fastest growing group of women of color voters, but consistently ignored by pollsters in national surveys of voters. Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) women voters also remain untapped: CAP found that in the last presidential election, one million AANHPI women may have been prevented from voting because of voter suppression and insufficient engagement.

Substantial engagement of these powerful blocs could be bolstered if candidates extended the same treatment as they do toward moderate white voters. The Voter Participation Center found that the main reason the Rising American Electorate voters didn’t cast their ballots in 2016 is because “they don’t have enough information about the candidates or about the policy debates on the issues they care about.”

Candidates may include talking points in their plans addressing the issues young people, people of color, and unmarried people face, though their complex realities have yet to be centered by most of those gunning for the nomination. Notable are the unrecognized needs of Black and Latina women, who remain especially mobilized as dependable voters despite having been long left behind by the Democratic Party, Natalia Salgado, chief of civic engagement at the Center for Popular Democracy, told Rewire.News.

The party “has always taken Black women for granted, always taken Latinas for granted,” Salgado said. “It’s left a vacancy for organizations like mine that are going out and doing the work that the Democratic Party has failed to do.”

Luis Sánchez, executive director of Power California, which works with young voters and their families in the state, said Black women have been the “firewall for the Democratic Party” but aren’t valued as such, that candidates will court their votes then forget them. Ninety-two percent of Black women voted Democrat in the 2018 midterm elections, and they also make up significant shares of the citizen voter-age population in states like Mississippi and Georgia, yet double as the target of voter suppression efforts in their states.

Sánchez told Rewire.News that candidates have yet to catch up to the diversity of the country and that campaigns are run on an antiquated system. Democrats not only have to invest in younger voters, he explained, but lessen the barriers that prohibit many of them from voting, like laws that require specific forms of identification to vote, limit registration, early voting periods, and the location of polling places.

These challenges compound for young people enrolled in institutions of higher education: students across the country additionally struggle with transportation to the polls and voting absentee, even more so for students attending historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which saw about an 11 percent decline in turnout from 2012 to 2016.

“Sometimes it feels like the right understands the power of this voting bloc better than Democrats,” Sánchez said, addressing the incentives to and successes from Republican Party efforts to suppress the votes of young people, unmarried women, and voters of color.

“Look at 2018: When you look at the races of Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, and Beto O’Rourke in Texas, women of color are what made these races competitive,” Salgado said. Civil rights groups and candidates both spoke at length about the multiple and compounding tactics to suppress the vote in these races, including voter roll purges, faulty voting machines, unapproved registration applications, and in Georgia, attempts to close polling locations early in majority Black districts. Yet despite the groundswell of support for Abrams among the party and voters, there has yet to be a Democratic Party push to counteract the restrictive voting laws enacted by battleground states in the past two years or throw its weight behind women of color and black women candidates from poor backgrounds.

Briyana Haas, campaign and policy coordinator for ACT for Women and Girls and a young Black voter, told Rewire.News that even when candidates address underrepresented or under-acknowledged groups— as did over half of the candidates on stage during November’s Democratic primary debate—they usually stick issues like health care or economics, making single-issue voters out of people with complex experiences.

“In order for candidates to be not apathetic, they need to think of us beyond voters, they really need to think of us as people,” Haas said.

Running a campaign based on assumptions that a voter cares most about the quality of a singular part of their identity is patronizing and gilded, she said. It may have been a successful tactic among older white people, whose range of experiences have been treated as the standard for “American” experience, but with a young, diverse electorate, the standards are changing.

Candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Julián Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration, have worked against this narrative, tediously examining and crafting multidimensional policy, consistently addressing and centering people of color in their plans.

Still, even when a candidate is a woman, a member of LGBTQ communities, and/or a person of color, it does not mean they recognize fully the needs and wants of these groups. For example, the youngest candidate in the race (and, if elected, would become the youngest president in history), South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, is polling at 4 percent among Black Democrats. During the June debate, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) answered questions in Spanish—blatant attempts to woo Spanish-speaking voters that were both positively received and mocked. (Booker has not repeated the effort since.) But while immigration got 57 minutes of talking time during November’s debate, many Latino voters feel that Democratic contenders communicate with and about them in terms of identity— using appeals like language, for example—and fail to realize that kind of thinking maintains systems of economic discrimination that depress lifetime earning potential and social mobility. In that debate, when moderators finally asked how candidates would tackle wage disparities, only Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) (who announced on Tuesday that she was suspending her candidacy) mentioned that racist wage discrimination impacts Latinas the most.

Young voters of color don’t just want to know that systems of oppression are connected but for candidates to reflect and illustrate back how they’re connected. A debate question about immigration can center an answer about generational wealth, and a campaign stop at a Pride parade is an opportunity to talk about health care for the most vulnerable and discriminated against in the LGBTQ community.

Haas believes that gaining the trust of and turning out young people of color to vote requires that candidates address the foundational discrimination in the United States. This mirrors what the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics found among 18- to 29-year-olds (including those white and married) likely to vote in a Democratic primary: 45 percent support the approach of “big, structural policy changes that address the urgency of the problems that we are facing, even if they will not be easy to carry out.”

“I could trust them more if they talked about the history of these problems,” Haas said, long-standing crises like affordable housing and rent control. She thinks they should explain to voters “that the U.S. government intentionally did this through redlining, mass incarceration, [and the] GI Bill not being available for Black [veterans].”

Directly confronting the structural foundation of social issues and inequality could be responsible for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA) rise in popularity among young people. At a Clark Atlanta University rally in late November, Warren remarked that “The federal government helped create the racial divide in this country through decades of active, state-sponsored discrimination.”

Still, while many proposed policies would help young, unmarried voters of color and women provide for themselves, Traister told Rewire.News, “There hasn’t been a ton of direct address of [unmarried] women that I’ve heard, [and] a lot of the policy ideas the candidates are talking about…would have a huge impact on the way that people could better afford to live their lives.”

When candidates suggest policy proposals to engender economic and social protections that would help everyone, they fail to mention the impact on unmarried young voters of color. During the October debate, Booker and former Secretary Castro doubled down on their opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which restricts low-income women from accessing abortion care, just over half of whom are women of color, unmarried, and in their 20s. Most candidates have some sort of housing policy, such as Harris’ LIFT the Middle Class Act or Booker’s policy proposal that includes protections for renters, both of which would empower young, unmarried people of color, most of whom are renters, without actual mention of these voters. Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Warren, have called for canceling all or most student debt, respectively, which would grant millions of young people economic mobility and freedom, especially Black women, who graduate with the most student loan debt. (While both candidates have touted their plans’ ability to shrink the racial income gap, neither has mentioned unwed people directly beyond acknowledging that debt delays marriage).

And centering these needs should occur, no matter the forum or makeup of voters in the audience. Sanders should be learned enough to mention HBCUs at Morehouse College as well as when he’s campaigning for votes in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or asking for money in Menlo Park, California. Candidates who reserve messaging about young unmarried people of color only for their young audiences of color risk appearing disingenuous or hypocritical, ignorant of the fact that a majority of the electorate might be interested in foundational policy positions. Buttigieg demonstrated this fumble with his Douglass Plan: A Comprehensive Investment for the Empowerment of Black America, which claimed to have support where it didn’t that was soon eclipsed by video coverage of comments he made during his mayoral run about education in poor communities that degraded parents of color and ignored the role of structural racism in schooling.

Sánchez believes that both parties “still believe that their base and the people that matter the most are that traditional voter,” even though the data shows that the percentage of the white electorate is shrinking. Candidates position themselves as well-versed in statistics and current events, and therefore should know that young people of color will drive the nomination.

“2016 showed us what happens when people don’t turn out, but 2018 had a historic turnout…led by women, led by young people,” he said about those elections.

No 2020 Democratic candidate will win without the support of young people, people of color, and unmarried women, but whether they address them with the level of deference typically reserved for older white voters remains to be seen. It’s time they recognize that these voters are the new Democratic base and work to carve avenues for voting and shape policy that reflects their needs.