- Drew Angerer/Getty Images
- Black voters deserve much of the credit for Democrat Doug Jones’ stunning victory in Alabama’s US Senate special election last Tuesday.
- But some Democrats say the party needs to do more to engage black voters during nonelection years.
- “It’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor,” the retired NBA star Charles Barkley, an Alabama native, said.
Black Alabamians deserve much of the credit for Democrat Doug Jones’ stunning victory in the deep red state’s US Senate special election last Tuesday.
Turning out to vote in much higher-than-predicted numbers last week, black voters are being described as the “backbone” of the Democratic Party, but some on the left argue that much more needs to be done to both serve and energize black communities to ensure their engagement in crucial elections in 2018 and 2020.
A multipronged approach to mobilizing black voters
Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, a progressive super PAC that invested heavily in the Alabama race, said the effort to reach black voters was multifaceted, with a heavy focus on digital advertising and grassroots mobilization.
Black Alabamians made up 30% of the electorate, slightly more than in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama was on the ballot, according to exit polls. And 96% of them voted for Jones, helping him edge Republican Roy Moore by about 1.5 percentage points overall.
Priorities USA poured $1.5 million into a digital ad campaign, nearly $1 million of which was spent targeting 1.4 million black Alabamians on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Pandora, Google, and other online platforms.
Some ads were specifically targeted at black communities, showing footage of white supremacist marches and Donald Trump rallies while a woman talked about the importance of education for children of color.
“My kids are going to do more than just survive the bigotry and hatred,” the female narrator said over images of black kids and young adults. “They’re going to get an education, start a business, earn a living – make me proud.”
Other groups, led by Black PAC, Highway 31, and the Senate Majority PAC, partnered with dozens of local churches, schools, and other community groups, knocking on 500,000 doors, according to Chris Hayden, the communications director for Senate Majority PAC.
Hayden says the groups had mapped out an aggressive ground and advertising campaign strategy even before the first accusations of sexual misconduct against Moore appeared in The Washington Post in November.
“We decided that this really on-the-ground, in-person campaign was something we were going to do,” Hayden told Business Insider. “We laid the groundwork in October … This can’t be done overnight.”
Cecil said his team expanded the demographics of targeted voters to include inconsistent and new voters, conducted creative ad testing with local input, and invested in voter education, particularly in the days leading up to Tuesday.
Both Hayden and Cecil argue that Democrats will need to replicate this “all-of-the-above approach” in 2018 and 2020 to mobilize black voters, a key part of the left’s base.
“We need grassroots infrastructure. We need investment at the local level. We need to run canvassing campaigns,” Cecil told Business Insider. “We need not to be so restricted in what we think works and doesn’t work at the national level that we’re crushing creativity and local empowerment, and we need to change the way we’re communicating with people by investing more online.”
Alabama also has some of the strictest voting laws in the country, prohibiting same-day voter registration, preregistration for teens, and no-fault absentee ballots. Critics of these laws argue they disproportionately affect black people, who are less likely to have the money, resources, and time off work to obtain the proper identification. Civil-rights organizations received hundreds of calls from Alabamians turned away from the polls or facing difficulties voting last Tuesday.
“The fact that Alabama has taken every measure possible to suppress the African-American vote, especially in the Black Belt, and yet despite all of that people came out and they voted is pretty remarkable,” Cecil said.
‘Black women led us to victory’
Black women, specifically, turned out in even larger numbers than black men, making up about 17% of the electorate, while black men made up 11%. And 98% of black women voted for Jones, while 93% of black men did the same, according to Washington Post exit polling.
The Democratic National Committee’s chairman, Tom Perez, recognized the strength of black female voters and organizers on Wednesday, as he did following the sweeping Democratic wins in Virginia and New Jersey last month.
“Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory. Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period,” Perez tweeted last week.
The youth vote – another critical demographic for Jones and the Democratic Party – was also led by young people of color.
“The reason millennials overwhelmingly support Democrats in 2017 is not that the average millennial is further left than the average baby boomer – it is because the average millennial is far more likely to be a person of color than the average baby boomer,” Joshua Goodman wrote in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
- Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
‘A wake-up call for Democrats’
Many Democrats see the Alabama election as proof of the importance of the black vote in deeply conservative parts of the country.
“People of color are the back bone of the Democratic Party and we had better never, ever forget it,” Rob Flaherty, the creative director for Priorities USA, tweeted on election night.
But some, including the retired NBA star Charles Barkley, articulated a widespread sentiment after Jones’ win: that the party doesn’t do enough to engage black communities in nonelection years.
“This is a wake-up call for Democrats,” Barkley, an Alabama native who campaigned for Jones, told CNN on election night. “They’ve taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time. It’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor. They’ve always had our votes and they have abused our votes and this is a wake-up call.”
Rodell Mollineau, a DC-based Democratic strategist, echoed Barkley.
“I’ve always been critical of the party and of individual politicians of not doing more to engage with these voters in off years,” Mollineau said. “I don’t care where you’re from: If you’re looking at 2020 and you’re not starting this process now, then good luck to you.”
Mollineau says not every election will pit someone like Jones, who has a connection to Alabama’s black community in part as a result of his work prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members, against someone like Moore, who has ties to white supremacist groups and a long record of racist beliefs.
Jones recognized the power of his black supporters during his victory speech on Tuesday night, thanking them, the Hispanic community, and the Jewish community for their support. And he concluded his speech with words from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., repeating the civil-rights leader’s quote that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“Tonight, in this time and this place, you helped bend that moral arc a little closer toward justice,” Jones said. “That moral arc – not only was it bent more, not only was its aim truer, but you sent it right through the heart of the great state of Alabama.”