They tried to tell the Democratic Party. Hell, they tried to tell me.
The Black reverend in Chicago who, between cigar puffs, lamented the failed promise of Obama: “We did not benefit from him being president.” The Vietnamese Texan, who felt Democrats didn’t see Asians like him and was leaning toward not voting: “When they say diversity … it seems like they have a preference.” The Somali refugee, who organized for Democrats in Ohio for nearly two decades before being blackballed when he tried to run for office himself: “They don’t see me as African American. They see me as an immigrant.”
They are people of color all across America, every state of which I have visited in the four years since Trump was elected in an effort to better understand this vast and disparate country. And they are increasingly a people without a party, in the wake of a presidential election that once again will elect a candidate who relies on their votes yet fails to heed their needs.
That may seem too harsh. But as Joe Biden seems poised to win the White House — with slight margins built on the backs of millions of dedicated Democratic voters in majority-minority cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia — there are numerous warning signs that the Democratic coalition of color is at risk of crumbling.
Candidates always say they will do this or do that. And nothing ever happens.
JeQuan Mayo, 20, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Democrats lost two key states as Hispanics flocked to Trump in South Florida and in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where Biden severely underperformed — winning by just 5 percentage points in Starr, a 95 percent Latino county that Hillary Clinton won by 60 points four years ago. And after preelection polls suggested a shift as Trump aggressively courted Black voters, preliminary Edison Research exit polls found that 12 percent supported him, up from 8 percent four years ago. Taking nearly a third of Asian and Latino voters, the exit polls suggest Trump won a quarter of non-white voters which, if accurate, would be the highest percentage for any Republican since Richard Nixon in 1960.
The result? Despite cutting into Trump’s margin with white voters, Biden is poised to limp into the presidency without a Senate majority and losing seats in the House of Representatives. That likely scuttles hopes for an aggressive legislative agenda on climate change, health care or economic justice. And a lack of meaningful progress will continue to push already skeptical voters of color away, perhaps not to the Republican Party, given its own problems on race. But many could be sent into a sort of political homelessness, one marked by doubt that civic life can change their lives for the better.
“I kind of look at it the same way, no matter who the candidate is,” says JeQuan Mayo, a Black 20-year-old from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. “I don’t feel like anything is going to change. At this point, there aren’t any issues that I care about — because candidates always say they will do this or do that. And nothing ever happens.”
Ahead of Biden’s underwhelming performance, numerous Democrats of color warned me that the party was taking their vote for granted despite high-minded rhetoric. Emilia Sykes, the Ohio House Minority Leader, was worried it would lead to low turnout: Indeed, Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland and the state’s biggest minority voter base, somehow saw lower turnout (54 percent) and 10,000 fewer voters than in 2016, even as the nation set records for voter participation. “We didn’t have the capacity or resources because they’re giving them all to the white women groups to have wine parties,” she said before the election.
That was the case in many states, despite Biden sporting a huge fundraising advantage with nearly half a billion dollars on hand in the final weeks. Democrats invested “a billion dollars that was spent talking to white persuadable voters and less than $24 million talking to Latinos for outside orgs,” as Arizona Latino organizer Chuck Rocha told The Intercept. It’s not like the Biden campaign wasn’t warned: The Biden campaign “needs, and has needed for several months, a tremendous amount of improvement,” Moe Vela, a former White House senior adviser to Biden, told me in July as poll after poll showed that Biden was leaking Latinos.
But those weren’t the only obvious constituencies that the Biden campaign glossed over. In Maine, the Sara Gideon campaign and state Democrats wouldn’t — or, maybe couldn’t, despite multiple requests — put me in touch with staff organizing Somali voters, a small but growing political force with many anti-Trump members due to his immigration policies. “When it comes to engaging with our issues, we don’t see it in a meaningful way,” said Fatuma Hussein, a Somali nonprofit leader in Lewiston. In Robeson County, North Carolina, where Native Americans are a majority of voters, Trump beat Biden 69 to 31 percent — after Obama beat Romney in those same precincts 59 to 39 percent in 2012. One likely reason? Trump showed up, campaigning in Lumberton in October and pledging his support for full federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe. (Biden holds the same position, but didn’t campaign in Lumberton himself.)
While the Biden campaign and Senate hopefuls splashed record sums on TV advertising, meaningful outreach programs to voters of color were often ignored or underfunded by Democrats. Trump, meanwhile, spent years microtargeting Venezuelan and Cuban voters in the Miami area with ads tailored to their experience.
The fact that voters of color were not mobilized properly is especially shocking, given the way the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd’s death dominated liberal activism this summer. Many expected a massive turnout from minority Democrats in light of their message that Trump was fanning the flames of racism.
But voters of color, like most Americans, prioritize fairness, not sound bites. Too many times, protesters asked for police accountability and got Instagram blackout campaigns. At marches, it was striking how many more white protesters were causing destruction, leading chants like “All cops are bastards” or calling to Defund the Police … claiming to speak for Black Americans when 81 percent of Black Americans say they want more or the same amount of police presence in their neighborhoods, not less (although they do want better policing). Poll after poll shows that Black and Hispanic Democrats are more moderate than their white counterparts on a host of issues, from social ones like abortion to policy ones like single-payer health care. The elevation of people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led some Latinos, like Alex Otaola, to leave the party. “AOC’s attacks of populist hysteria convinced me that the Democrats were not my place,” the Cuban YouTube star told me, as he helped organize thousands of Latinos in South Florida for Trump.
In a year where countless white Democrats started book clubs around White Fragility, exit polls estimate Biden made gains only with white men — while Trump added support from white women and minority voters across the board. As 2016 showed the Democratic Party to be increasingly divorced from its blue-collar base, the demographic data of 2020 may reveal it to be whiter, richer and more liberal than in the past. It creates distance from the minority experience, as well as threatening their chances in future elections.
Biden, given his history with the 1994 crime bill and propensity for saying things like “You ain’t Black” if you don’t support him, was a particularly hard sell to some Black voters. And throughout the campaign, Biden struggled to articulate a message that clearly demonstrated how Democrats would change people of color’s lives for the better. Even as some progressives begged Biden to talk about pocketbook issues amid an economic crisis and pandemic — things like eviction halts, COVID relief, a living wage and health care — Biden instead focused on a “Soul of the Nation” campaign that served almost entirely as a referendum on Trump.
In the end, that referendum was enough for Biden to defeat Trump, however slightly. But if he wants to make sure voters of color don’t become a people without a party, his presidency will have to be about passing legislation and signing executive orders that meaningfully address the challenges in their lives. And it will have to start immediately.