Cornell Belcher schools progressives on what it will take to win the White House in 2020

"If you consolidate the minority vote, you are going to be the Democratic nominee. It's just that simple. It's math."

A lot of ink has been spilled about the changes the United States faces in 2045, when according to demographers, the country will cross a threshold: Its black and brown citizens will outnumber white ones.

Author and demographer Cornell Belcher has a news flash for us: The future is now.

The impact of a rapidly expanding voting populace of color is not something to brace for decades down the road, according to Belcher. It is already being felt, more so with each new election cycle. Case in point? The primary vote contests that every four years crown each party’s presidential nominee.

The first two states to hold elections — Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary — long ago earned the status of designated kingmakers. Presidential aspirants have understood only too well over the years that the road to the White House leads through those two states, both with populations that are almost entirely white.


But things may look a little different next year. Belcher said the presidential kingmaker or queenmaker role in 2020 may actually fall to South Carolina — the fourth state to hold its primary season election contest — a southern state with a large and politically savvy African American population. The fourth state to weigh in, Nevada, which has a large and growing Hispanic population, also looks to be more influential than in years past.

Belcher, a demographer and political pundit, worked on the 2008 campaign that saw Barack Obama elected the nation’s first black president. He is also the author of a book about that historic campaign, A Black Man in the White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America’s Racial Aversion Crisis

In an interview with ThinkProgress on race, politics, and the 2020 election, Belcher argued that the shakeup in the relative importance of the primary states is a reflection of America’s rapidly changing demographic landscape.

What are your thoughts about the historically diverse field of Democratic candidates this year?

This is democratizing. This is how it’s supposed to work. You have a more different people from different religious backgrounds in Congress now, because “the people’s house” is actually supposed to be a reflection of the people. And we’re getting closer to that.


But look, we are changing from a majority-white to a majority-minority country over the next, what? Fifteen or so years? That is a dramatic political shift in our country, and it’s going to be most pronounced in Democratic primaries, where for better or worse, the vast majority of minorities are siding with the Democrats.

You have several of the white male candidates who have been asked the same question: “Why should you as a white man be the next president, when we have this diverse field?” They’ve had really varied answers.

I think the candidate who best gives vision to [voters’] values and their angst — but also their aspirations — whether that candidate is black or white, that candidate is going to be able to compete for minority voters because, in fact, black and Hispanic people don’t simply vote for you because you’re black and Hispanic. Never have. Probably never will.

Iowa and New Hampshire are really important states, but I’m going tell you: The person who comes in first or second in South Carolina is better positioned to be the nominee than the person who comes in first and second in Iowa. The person who’s first, second, or even third, given the crowded field — what it’s telling me is that person can compete for the minority vote.

What happened in 2016? The race in 2016 was over when Bernie Sanders had his hat handed to him in South Carolina. Because just like in 2008, [the question] was, can you consolidate strongly the minority vote? If you consolidate the minority vote, you are going to be the Democratic nominee. It’s just that simple. It’s math.

What do you think of the way Sanders has changed the optics around his campaign this year, appearing at venues with a lot more people of color, compared to 2016?  Will it make him more appealing to black and brown voters?


Kudos to him, and his advisers around him, for understanding 2016 and what happened to him, and understanding that if you can’t compete for minority voters in the Democratic primary, you can’t be the nominee. This is not 1984.

“If you can’t compete for minority voters in the Democratic primary, you can’t be the nominee. This is not 1984.”

Ultimately, it’s a very good thing for minority voters when a lot of people are competing strongly for minority voters.

I love it that you have Elizabeth Warren talking about reparations. I love it that you have Bernie Sanders talking about [Martin Luther King, Jr.] I love it that you have Beto [O’Rourke] talking about white privilege. I love it that you have so many candidates competing strongly for minority voters.

But, this is “the get”: Black and brown people have to be sophisticated politically now. There must be an “ask.” Politics is about, get what you can get when you can get it. And come back for more. That’s Politics 101. We have to understand that.

What we need now is a conversation among black and brown people about, “You have this rising power, they need you, what are you going to demand, what are you going to get for it?” We have to play the American political game, just like other groups that played it, in order to advance.

So, is race the reason Sanders’ campaign faltered four years ago?

Let’s be clear: Black Lives Matter pretty much ended that campaign. Criminal justice reform, issues of racial profiling, hate crimes, police brutality — those are not secondary considerations behind the economy and jobs and health care for black people and people of color. They are front burner issue concerns.

“Politics is about get what you can get, when you can get it and come back for more. That’s Politics 101.”

Literally, I could send my kid out to basketball practice, and he or she may run into a police officer and not come home. So yes, Democrats: Whether you’re white, black, brown, you should have to speak to that, and you should have an understanding of that.

And I’m sorry, but you can’t say “Black Lives Matter” and instead say, “All Lives Matter.” This is the problem I have with a lot of the progressive community. Racial issues have always trumped class issues for people of color. Progressives don’t get that.

“Literally, I could send my kid out to basketball practice, and he or she may run into a police officer and not come home.”

When you give an argument about economics that is simply a class-focused argument, and does not take in specifically the issues and historical context of inequality for certain racial groups? It’s insulting. Too many of our progressive friends don’t want to understand race, and don’t want to make race a variable because they’re uncomfortable.

Now, Republicans have always understood race. They understand race a lot better than progressives. They’ve always used race strategically and politically. The Southern Strategy — the most successful strategy in this country — was a racial strategy that Republicans used. So we can’t ignore that race is a variable.

There’s plenty of research — not only mine — that shows there’s racial angst that’s happening because of the changes that are happening in this country, that this man [Donald Trump] speaks to. He’s their tribal warrior.

“Republicans have always understood race… They’ve always used race strategically and politically.”

By the way, that would be a good conversation for progressives to have, to engage this idea that Trump is feeding [his supporters], that “brown people are invading your country!” We’ve got to take back our country, as opposed to saying, “Raise the minimum wage!”

Is there economic angst there? Yeah, but you can’t disconnect that economic angst from their status angst — and that’s what progressives don’t get. But conservative Republicans do get it. And we’d better start having a better conversation about it.

When Donald Trump stands up at one of his rallies, which he often did, and says “I’m gonna give you your country back!” He was having a conversation about race. Our answer to that? “We’re going raise the minimum wage!” That is a disconnect.

Reparations seems to be the litmus test issue of the moment. Will black Americans really cast ballots based on this issue?

My educated guess is that, yes, a majority of black people are going to be for reparations. Is it a singular voting issue for them? My educated guess is it is not. My educated guess is that if you are in the right place on holding bad police accountable; if you are on the right place for expanding opportunities in urban areas; if you are in the right place about how we end poverty in America — I think if you are on the right place with those more fundamental, everyday issues for black people —  those are ultimately going to be more important than something that is sort of theoretical, like reparations.

“Racial issues have always trumped class issues for people of color. Progressives don’t get that.”

But, I love the conversation about reparations. And I think the conversation about reparations is informative, because it helps others understand the benefit America has gotten from free labor, and that we built this — and we didn’t get any economic benefit from it.

This whole idea of, if you just work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that’s bullshit. And I think the conversations around reparations get some context around that bullshit.

What was most significant about Obama’s election breakthrough in 2008?

Understand what the election of Barack Obama meant to people who play a zero-sum game of race in this country: It is cataclysm. Barack Obama was a breakthrough, but it wasn’t the kind of breakthrough that many people were thinking, [that] it was being post-racial.

The same 43 percent overall of the white vote that John Kerry got and lost, Barack Obama got the same 43 percent of the white vote and he won a majority. In 2012, he won even less of the white vote, and won back-to-back majorities.

“We’ve got to take back our country, as opposed to saying, ‘Raise the minimum wage!'”

What Barack Obama represents is a demographic breakthrough: For the first time in our country’s history, the vast majority of white voters can go in one direction, and the country [can] move in another direction. That’s jolting.

As a country, as a democracy, we’re in uncharted territory. There is not another modern democracy, with the wealth and power that we have, that has gone from being a majority white country to a majority non-white country, and it’s challenging our ideas about democracy.

Do we really believe in democracy, or do we believe in power? Do we really believe in democracy, or do we believe in the status quo? And the status quo holding onto its power?

When you look at what’s happening in the state legislatures all over this country, how they’re making it more difficult to vote, how they’re doubling down on gerrymandering, you begin to sort of question, do we really believe in democracy?

And if power indeed concedes nothing, what’s the future of America?

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.