Editor’s Note: Bakari Sellers is a former Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a CNN commentator. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, Democrats have been obsessed with the disaffected Trump voter. I hate to break it to Democrats, but these voters just aren’t that into you. Want proof? Look no further than Tuesday’s shocker in Alabama.
Seventy-seven percent of white working-class voters – white voters without a college degree who we can assume voted for Trump – cast a ballot for Republican Roy Moore. In stark contrast, virtually every black Alabamian – roughly 96%– voted for Sen.-elect Doug Jones. Black votes literally paved the way to victory for the long shot Democratic candidate. And statewide candidates in Ohio, Missouri, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Maryland should take note.
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are two notable Democrats with presidential aspirations who have been preoccupied with winning back the trust of disaffected Trump voters. So, after Tuesday, are we going to coddle voters who enthusiastically supported Moore, or are we going to prioritize our party’s most loyal voting bloc?
If Democrats expect to be competitive in 2018 and 2020, the answer is simple: Engage black voters.
For a playbook on what effective black voter engagement looks like, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin’s campaign offers a strong example.
Woodfin’s task was no easy one. He was up against an older, more established black elected official, William Bell, who was universally known. And even though someone black was going to win anyway – because of the choices – it’s worth paying attention to who came out to vote for Woodfin.
Over 35% of Birmingham’s registered voters cast their ballots in the October mayoral runoff election. And while over 11,000 voters had never voted in a municipal election, 1,500 of those voters were between the age of 18 and 24.
Woodfin and his consultants from Pine Street Strategies, a D.C. lobbying firm, were able to cultivate grass-roots excitement because they spoke to African-Americans like “persuasion voters” – or voters who you have to persuade to turn out to vote – instead of assuming black voters will show up, as campaigns often do.
Moreover, the Woodfin campaign engaged local black media around their policy platform and discussed issues with families across the city, and they responded accordingly at the polls. Voters in African-American strongholds like Ensley and Collegeville could tell you exactly what a Woodfin vote meant for their family and community.
This is how you engage black voters in 2018, and it’s a stark departure from the traditional Democratic playbook of fish fries, photo ops, and last-minute ads.
Real engagement also includes hiring diverse senior-level campaign consultants who do more than just African-American outreach. Our perspective has to be reflected in both black outreach and overall campaign strategy and messaging. For instance, I find it hard to believe that the now-infamous Jones Confederate campaign ad would have seen the light of day if there were more African-Americans included in the development of that ad. In a different race against a different candidate, that ad could have cost him the election.
Lastly, engagement with black voters must start when the campaign starts – not during the last 30-day sprint to the finish line. Failing to prioritize African-Americans will ultimately leave valuable votes on the table, preventing Democrats from gaining back ground in state legislature and congressional seats that they have lost in the last decade.
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But engaging black voters also does not stop when you win. For Jones, this means fighting to ensure cities like Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, as well as Alabama’s Black Belt counties are not afterthoughts during appropriations season. It means engaging our radio and press outlets the same way you do mainstream outlets instead of simply buying ads during an election. It means coming to our churches – and clapping on beat – even when there is not an election.
Disaffected Trump voters showed us who they were during the presidential election and they reminded us of who they were on Tuesday in Alabama. It is time for Democrats to believe them and move on.