Democrats Have Some Work to Do With Black Women

African-American female turnout could be key in midterms, as it was in Alabama

Supporters of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones celebrate his victory over Republican Roy Moore at his election night victory rally in December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Supporters of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones celebrate his victory over Republican Roy Moore at his election night victory rally in December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 25, 2018 at 5:00am

After African-American women played a key role in Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama Senate race last month, Democrats are working on more effective messaging for them in hopes they will do the same thing in midterm races.

To have a chance to win, the Jones campaign had hoped for a turnout among African-Americans comparable to their percentage of the Alabama population — around 27 percent. But black voters made up 29 percent of the election electorate, exit polls showed, a slightly higher percentage than the black turnout in the state for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election.

And black women, who accounted for 17 percent of voters, went nearly unanimously for Jones

“That saved us,” said Paul Maslin, who did polling for the Jones campaign. 

Watch: Scenes From Doug Jones‘ Election Night Rally

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Weak outreach

While African-American women recognize their clout and want serious consideration for their interests, there is evidence that their patience with the Democratic Party is growing thin.

In September, the Black Women’s Roundtable and Essence released a survey showing that 74 percent of black women felt the party best represented their views — down from 85 percent in 2016. 

“Looking at shifts and changes, millennial voters, people are looking elsewhere,” said Melanie Campbell, who convened the Black Women’s Roundtable. “Black women were saying we were getting to a place where our vote and our benefit are being taken for granted.” 

Zac McCrary, who did polling for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during the Alabama special election, said a common problem is that Democratic campaigns engage with African-American voters only toward the end of a race. 

“That’s not how it works,” McCrary said. Democrats need to have a “longer conversation” with black voters over the duration of a campaign, like they do with independent white voters, he said. 

“Does the dollar go to base Democratic voters, does it go to turnout, does it go to television?” McCrary said.

McCrary said Jones was fortunate he had more financial resources than his Republican opponent Roy Moore, allowing for an “all-of-the-above” outreach.

Since the 2016 election, the party has been divided about whether to focus on economic issues or matters of racial justice.

But McCrary said polling showed African-American voters cared about what Jones dubbed “kitchen-table” issues.

“It’s bread-and-butter, education, public schools. Improving schools is often the front, also health care,” McCrary said.

The right message

A’shanti Gholar, who previously worked on African-American outreach for the Democratic National Committee, said it is important to know what appeals to African-American women because, like all voting groups, they vote to “make sure the country represents us.”

Gholar said black women are often the most affected by the economy, education and health care, so these issues would be at the forefront of their concerns.

“So many people forget that, when talking to black women,” she said. “They feel they have to go immediately to identity.”

But McCrary also said polling showed African-American voters also cared about confronting racism and focusing on criminal justice overhaul.

This was reflected in the Black Women’s Roundtable survey, which showed that the top four issues for black female voters were affordable health care, a criminal justice overhaul, education and wages.

A rise in hate crimes, which wasn’t polled in previous years, ranked fifth.

Priorities USA Action, a Democratic super PAC, is already conducting research to improve party messaging for African-Americans.

It recently released memos on messaging to black voters and those not registered to vote. The findings showed that both groups care about economic issues such as better wages and good jobs, as well as racial justice topics such as a criminal justice overhaul. 

“Young African-Americans want to know Democrats have a real plan,” said Symone Sanders, a spokeswoman for the group. 

Sanders said the study was done because enthusiasm among younger African-Americans was low during the 2016 elections.

“The key to keeping this momentum going is continuing to engage with community,” she said.

Gholar said another potential solution to improving outreach efforts is making sure campaigns have African-American staff.

“The thing is, we need to be considered year-round,” she said. “A lot of this has to do with who campaigns hire. Have a black campaign manager. Have a black finance director.”

“Hire a black field organization to help you with your outreach,” she added. “It’s not just about black women voting. Investing in black women. Supporting black women. We are much more than just voters.”