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The lesson Alabama Democrats must learn from Virginia’s election

Postmortems can be revealing.

Voters cast their ballots in Alexandra, Virginia, 2016. CREDIT: mpi34/MediaPunch/IPX
Voters cast their ballots in Alexandra, Virginia, 2016. CREDIT: mpi34/MediaPunch/IPX

For an off-off-year, 2017 proved to be a remarkable political moment, suggesting a wave of things to come as voters grapple with how to respond to last year’s surprising election of Donald Trump to the White House.

The major take-away was that progressive voters from Maine to Washington State want to plot a course away from Trumpism. But how can we understand the mood of the electorate? Well, the best way is to perform a postmortem on the political campaign in Virginia, which offers a revealing — and possibly predictive — insight into upcoming elections.

The takeaway message flashes like a blinking, neon sign: black votes matter.

But it takes work to earn those votes. Candidates can’t just show up at a black church or tout their histories and expect to harvest votes. No, they need to put some work into crafting policies and messages that will resonate in black communities.

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Want proof? Let’s take a deep dive into the African American Research Collaborative (AARC) study of the 2017 Virginia election, which found that high turnout among black Virginia voters, about one-fifth of the ballots cast, were the critical edge that pushed Democrat Ralph Northam to victory over Republican Ed Gillespie.

The lessons learned from Virginia may very well be applicable to the upcoming special election for Alabama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat, where some observers express concerns about whether black voters are motivated enough to vote, or will just stay home. In fact, anyone interested in the Alabama race would be wise to pay close attention to the findings from the AARC study to divine the impact of outreach and messaging on black voters. No doubt some of it will apply as black Alabama voters head to the polls on December 12 to select a replacement for Jeff Sessions, who resigned his Senate seat to become President Trump’s attorney general.

The AARC study includes a set of two polls conducted before the November 7 election, including one done the weekend before voters headed to the polls. The polling was heavily weighted to get opinions of African American voters, a population that tends to be overlooked in typical political surveys. In addition, AARC researchers conducted a post-election analysis matched with the poll findings to compare what voters said they were going to do with what actually happened.

(Full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid adviser to the AARC, but had no role in this project.)

The study accurately predicted Northam’s 9-point win over Gillespie. But that’s not all. It also showed that the unsuccessful GOP candidate had surprisingly strong support among black voters in the final weeks before election day, but lost their votes because of perceived racist ads aimed at boosting white turnout. Gillespie’s campaign-closing ad blitz featured commercials that linked immigration with violent street gangs and featured support for Confederate statues.

By contrast, Northam stood in opposition to Gillespie’s race-baiting messages and targeted black voters in the closing days of the campaign, including making enthusiastic pitches in black churches and campaigning with former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder. Northam also made an issue of his support for the restoration of felony voting rights in the Commonwealth. The effort paid dividends as black voters gave him the lion’s share of their votes.

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“When a candidate speaks to issues that matter to black voters, this can boost their support and turnout,” Henry Fernandez, chief executive of Fernandez Advisors, a Connecticut-based consulting firm that coordinated the survey and analysis, told me in an interview. “On the other hand, if a candidate criminalizes people of color, as Gillespie did with his ads on felony disenfranchisement and associating immigrants with violent gangs, he or she can expect a backlash from African American voters.”

In what has become a bitter and hostile Alabama Senate campaign, erstwhile-long shot Democrat Doug Jones hopes to claim the job over Republican Roy Moore, who has seen his once-certain coronation rocked by allegations that he is a serial sexual abuser of underage girls.

So far, according to political observers in the state, black voters in Alabama haven’t shown a great deal of enthusiasm for Jones, but they clearly don’t like and are unlikely to support Moore. As the AARC study suggests, Jones will have to make clear what black voters are getting by casting their ballot for him, not merely being resigned to voting against Moore.

According to reports in the Washington Post, Jones’ campaign strategy is to fashion a coalition of base Democrats, crossover GOP voters disgusted by the accusations against Moore and massive mobilization of black voters to account for up to a third of the state’s electorate.

That should sound familiar. It’s the same formula Barack Obama used nationally to win the White House in 2008 and 2012. It’s also the winning recipe for Northam and for a host of other progressive candidates who won elections across the nation earlier this month.

Jones’ campaign is sending a melange of messages to black voters in the closing weeks of the campaign. He’s begun waging an aggressive outreach campaign to woo black voters, including targeted radio and online advertisements, billboards and phone calls that feature endorsements by Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), a civil rights icon.

On the other hand, Jones has yet to capitalize on the allegations against Moore with black voters, preventing his campaign from taking on a movement-like momentum. The New York Times reported that as last of last week, many black voters were unaware that a Senate race was underway. The Times noted, for example, Civeta Boyd, a 24-year-old hairstylist, wasn’t sure who Moore was, confused by all the news of celebrities caught behaving badly. “Roy Moore?” Boyd said as she had lunch at a Subway sandwich shop. “He was a news anchor, something like that?”

But for some more politically aware black voters in Alabama, Moore has name recognition and it’s not good.

“I just don’t want Roy Moore in there,” Marvis Owen of Birmingham, Alabama, recently told AL.com, a statewide online news site.

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Owen cited Jones’ dogged prosecution of two Klu Klux Klan members during the 1980s for participating in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. That bombing ignited the Civil Rights Movement in Owen’s hometown and she credited him with bringing justice for the deaths of 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson and 11-year-old Denise McNair.

What’s more, some analysts like Roger Vann, executive director of State Voices and a collaborator on the AARC poll, believe what happened in Virginia is waiting to happen in Alabama — and beyond into the 2018 midterm elections.

“Virginia tells us that black voters are prepared to participate at higher levels in 2018, if candidates are prepared to engage the community and take progressive stands on issues they care about,” Vann said recently during a press call to release the polling results. He specifically cited issues related to voting rights, criminal justice fairness and job creation in black communities.

But, of course, the obvious isn’t always so easy to accomplish. Or, as Fernandez explained to me, the postmortem on Virginia suggests what is required of candidates to drive black voters to resist political apathy and cast a ballot.

“Not only do black voters matter,” said Fernandez, “policies matter to African American voters and a consistent record of supporting causes that resonate with black voters will boost their turnout.”