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They are now at the centre of the party’s strategy

“THERE IS NO such thing as a base voter,” says Stacey Abrams, who last year came closer than any Democrat this century to becoming Georgia’s governor. Ms Abrams embraced identity politics—she contributed an article to the current issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “Identity politics strengthens democracy”—and made registration and mobilisation of young and non-white voters central to her campaign. “To win we had to activate voters [in] communities that had been discounted because they were seen as not viable. Republicans didn’t worry about them because they could never win. And Democrats didn’t engage because they didn’t vote.”

In purely strategic terms, it is not obvious that Democrats need make a special effort to court black voters. The last Republican to win a majority of their votes was Herbert Hoover, in 1932. No American ethnic group is as reliably and deeply partisan. Since 1964—when Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, who voted against that year’s Civil Rights Act—no Democratic presidential candidate has captured less than 80% of the black vote.

This loyalty leaves many African-Americans feeling taken for granted, as though Democrats have not so much courted their votes as assumed they will show up. “What we’ve seen in the past,” explains DeJuana Thompson, whose group Woke Vote helped propel Doug Jones to victory in Alabama’s Senate race in 2017, is “candidates who show up in black churches two weeks before” election day, expecting parishioners to “trust, vote, and get out and work for their campaigns for free.”

Things are different as the Democratic Party’s marathon primary gets under way. Not only are two African-American senators, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, among the top tier of Democratic candidates. Both they and their rivals have discussed racism and racial inequities openly, in ways that previous Democratic candidates have shied away from. The Democrats’ directness about race reflects both shifting priorities within their coalition and a tactical bet on how to best mobilise and expand their base.

As recently as the primaries of 2008, when Barack Obama was picking up delegates thanks to his strength with African-Americans and white progressives, Hillary Clinton was appealing to “hard-working Americans, white Americans”. Such rhetoric would be immediately disqualifying for a Democrat today. As whites without a college degree have left the party, the Democratic coalition of well-educated whites with members of ethnic minorities has grown more unified around questions of racism. In 2009 just 28% of Democrats agreed with the statement “Racial discrimination is the main reason why black people can’t get ahead these days”; by the summer of 2017, that share had risen to 64% (see chart).

Rhetoric from the party’s candidates reflects that consensus. Elizabeth Warren mentioned racial wealth gaps in the first minute of her campaign announcement. Soon after Kirsten Gillibrand announced, she acknowledged “systemic, institutional and daily individual acts of racism”, and decried racial income gaps, as did Ms Harris in her announcement speech, along with the state of criminal justice and police killings of young black men. Cory Booker backs “baby bonds”—a plan to give each child $1,000 at birth, followed by annual payments, tailored to family wealth, until the child turns 18—as a way to narrow the racial wealth gap. Ms Harris, Ms Warren and Julián Castro, a former mayor and cabinet secretary also seeking the nomination, have all endorsed some form of reparations for slavery, but have all stopped short of calling for direct financial transfers.

Some might consider these positions pandering. But as Leah Wright-Rigueur, a Harvard professor who wrote “The Loneliness of the Black Republican” notes, voters might ask, “Do I really care that they’re pandering? Maybe I want to be pandered to. Republicans pander to their base all the time.”

The tactical bet, that lots of people who have not voted before can be led to the polls, is one that Ms Abrams and Andrew Gillum made in their governors’ races, in Georgia and Florida respectively. According to this theory, the limited time and energy of a campaign is better spent mining untapped black voters than trying to win back wavering white ones. Some fear this strategy may turn off white voters, who still comprise a majority of the electorate. After all, both Ms Abrams and Mr Gillum lost—the latter in a swing state, in a year that was otherwise favourable to Democrats.

That suggests the bet may be mistaken. It may also be a category error. When it comes to issues, black Democrats are not very different from Democrats of other hues. Criminal-justice reform, investing in public education and expanding access to health care all have particular appeal to black voters, who bear the brunt of mass incarceration and poor schools. They also appeal to Democratic voters of all stripes. Ultimately, says Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a state representative from South Carolina, black Democrats are looking for the same thing as every other Democrat. “In the past it’s been kind of like a beauty contest: who’s speaking to your heart. But what I’m picking up now is a real sense of, ‘I want a winner’. And the winner is going to be the candidate who can beat 45.”

That candidate need not be black to win black votes. But he or she will need to court their support more vigorously than in past cycles. That is not only an acknowledgment of past oversight. Ms Abrams argues it will, be “cost-efficient. These communities are already tilted toward the value system and policies of Democrats. The mission isn’t to get someone to change their ideology. The mission is to get them to act on their beliefs.”

This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "The look-homeward angle"
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