National News

Democrats Plan New Effort to Target Minority Voters

Posted June 21, 2018 4:52 p.m. EDT

The Democratic National Committee is undertaking an expansive, multimillion-dollar strategic plan to motivate voters who typically sit out midterm elections, with a particular focus on engaging nonwhite communities through new investments in local organizing and a six-figure advertising campaign.

The plan, which is set to be announced Thursday, is likely the largest and most comprehensive effort ever by the Democratic Party to motivate minority voters in a midterm election year, according to aides and party insiders briefed on the new efforts. It includes $1.2 million split across 16 state parties to hire community organizers targeting groups who have been historically unlikely to vote — including black, Latino, Asian, millennial and rural voters. The plan also introduces a new database that seeks to identify 25 million likely Democratic voters who are currently unregistered and seemingly removed from the political process.

The nearly $2.5 million total investment telegraphs the Democratic Party’s strategy in November’s midterm elections. Party leaders say they believe President Donald Trump’s history of igniting racial divisions has motivated America’s minorities to engage in the political sphere, so the Democrats are expanding their target demographic to include voters who have traditionally not been cultivated.

“We are investing in our base communities, which are the heart of the Democratic Party, and putting organizers on the ground across the country because we know that’s the only way we’ll win,” said Tom Perez, the DNC chairman.

The greatest effect of the announcement, however, may be a symbolic one. More than just dollars, the new initiative comes with a tacit concession by party leaders who, after years of criticism from activists, are beginning to acknowledge that previous efforts to engage minority voters during nonpresidential election years may have been inadequate.

“In certain times, the party has retreated from communities of color, but I think that page is now turned,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund, a Democrat-aligned firm that trains and supports Latino political candidates nationwide.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s elections arm focused on House races in 2018, is planning a summit of more than 25 grass-roots groups to be held this summer, party officials confirmed. The summit’s explicit focus will be on outlining strategies to increase black voter participation in upcoming congressional races and smoothing the sometimes tense relationship between activist groups and party officials. The DNC’s move to hire dedicated organizers in states such as Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin will give Democrats a steady presence in places where liberal turnout was significantly depressed during the 2016 election — and a ready-made response to the long-standing criticism that Democrats only engage minority communities when an election is upcoming.

The party has struggled in recent years to motivate minority voters during elections when former President Barack Obama was not on the ballot. During the 2016 presidential election, black voter turnout fell a sharp 7.1 percent compared to 2012, and the Hispanic vote percentage also showed a modest decline, according to Census Bureau data. Midterm elections have proved even harder times in which to motivate these voters, as off-year elections have historically attracted a voter base that trends older and more white than presidential election years.

The DNC’s new spending, which seeks to harness the anti-Trump political energy among progressives, will focus on mobilizing minority communities in Midwestern urban centers such as Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, which have sizable black populations. Latino and Asian minority communities will be the primary targets of organizing in the West and Southwest, and in the New England states of Maine and New Hampshire, Democrats will prioritize millennial voters.

The organizers, who will report to the local state party they are assigned to, will be tasked with developing strategies to increase turnout and voter engagement. This could happen through traditional get-out-the-vote methods or social media, but party leaders said they want each organizer to be responsive to the needs of the local community — so strategies may vary across states.

The party is also planning a nationwide television advertising buy aimed at raising awareness of the midterm elections among “sporadic voters” nationwide, party aides said. The campaign is set to run over the summer.

“This is what a lot of folks have been looking for from the party for a long time,” said Quentin T. James, a founder of a political committee called the Collective PAC which supports African-American candidates.

“A lot of lip service has been paid to communities of color over the years, but I come from the school of thought that says your budget is your priorities,” James said.

Still, some remained skeptical. Alan Jenkins, president of a social justice advocacy firm called The Opportunity Agenda, chuckled when asked if the new investment meant Democrats had sufficiently responded to their critics.

“Investments connote money and time, and while that’s needed, it has to be brought simultaneously with a mindset change about who the party is and where its future lies,” Jenkins said.

His statement was echoed by Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, the national organization which has been at the forefront of progressive activism in recent years. Carruthers said her organization was particularly interested in who the Democratic Party chooses for any community organizing position.

“They need to follow the leadership and experience of people who have already been working on the ground,” Carruthers said. “I’ll be on standby to see what they do and who they hire.” Republicans have also recently announced new efforts to engage minority voters before November’s elections, said Cassie Smedile, a press secretary for the Republican National Committee. The party, which has often lagged behind the Democrats in securing votes from nonwhite Americans, hosted hundreds of events nationwide in an effort to pitch conservative policies such as the tax cut legislation and school choice to minority audiences.

“The RNC is not leaving a single vote unturned,” Smedile said.

But Democrats believe their initiative’s data set will make their targeting efforts more effective. Beyond the tool that attempts to zero in on disaffected liberals, Democrats have built several data projects they will soon share with state party leaders across the country, including one that tracks some state voter rolls in an attempt to monitor voter suppression efforts. Another arms state parties with every available cellphone number for every registered voter.

The thought, party aides say, is that “sporadic voters” are more likely to receive information from cellphones, so state parties now have a direct line to the most marginalized. The cellphone strategy was first used by the party in last year’s Alabama special election, in which Democrats effectively mobilized black voters on the way to electing the first Democratic senator from Alabama since 1992.

“This chapter of the Democratic Party, that will culminate in elections in November, will show the country that Democrats are not taking communities of color or minority communities for granted,” said Alex of Latino Victory Fund. “These investments will pay off.”