By Amie Parnes - 07-14-17 06:03 AM EDT
Democrats risk losing election after election if they focus too much on winning back white blue-collar voters from President Trump, according to progressives worried that young minorities are abandoning the party.
"We are not going to get back to national majorities again without these voters," said Cornell Belcher, the top pollster who worked on both for former President Barack Obama's campaigns.
Belcher recently conducted focus groups in Florida and Wisconsin for the Civic Engagement Fund that point to the problems Democrats have with millennials of color. The group, founded by progressive leader Andrea Hailey, analyzes data from past elections to increase voter engagement.
Millennial voters of color interviewed in the focus groups felt "undervalued, ignored, and taken for granted," according to the research obtained by The Hill. This is a huge problem, Belcher and others argue, since millennials of color are a growing part of the electorate.
Research conducted by the Brookings Institution shows that millennials will be the largest voting bloc in the U.S. by 2020. As of 2015, 44.2 percent of millennials are people of color.
"You're damn right, I don't have any loyalty to Democrats," one participant in the Florida focus group said. "If Republicans want to get real about shit that's happening in my community, I would vote for every one of them. Then maybe Democrats would take us serious too."
The Civic Engagement Fund's work found that a number of black and Hispanic millennials either voted for a third-party candidate last year or stayed home.
In the focus group conducted by Belcher, millennials said they had "no regrets about electing Trump" through their actions.
"Though they hold strong negative views of Trump and feel his presidency is an embarrassment, these voters do not regret voting third party or choosing not to vote in the 2016 election," the Civic Engagement Fund wrote in their report, provided to The Hill.
"They view their decision as an effective means to shake up the system in 2016 and in future elections."
To win the voters over, the Civic Engagement Fund says Democrats should embrace issues that it says would appeal to young progressives.
In 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton did about as well as 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry with black and Hispanic voters, but fell well short of Obama's numbers.
She won 88 percent of the black vote compared to just 8 percent for Trump. In 2012, Obama won 93 percent of the black vote compared to 6 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.
In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of the black vote.
Clinton won 66 percent of the Hispanic vote compared to 28 percent for Trump. That compares to 71 percent for Obama in 2012 and 27 percent for Romney.
The drop in support from Obama could have cost Clinton, who won the popular vote over Trump by 2.9 million votes, in key states.
In Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, Wayne County in Michigan and Philadelphia County in Pennsylvania, Clinton failed to turn out as many black voters as Obama. She lost all three states, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so in decades.
The third-party vote also hurt Clinton, and the Civic Engagement Fund argues that an important number of those voters are millennials of color.
Belcher pointed to statistics that show that 8 percent of black voters ages 18-29 voted for someone other than Clinton and Trump, while 6 percent of Hispanic voters of the same age group voted for someone other than the two candidates. In 2012, just 1 percent of black voters in that age group and 3 percent of Hispanic voters in that age group voted for third-party candidates.
"Their breakaway cost Hillary the election," Belcher said.
In Florida, where Trump beat Clinton 48.6 percent to 47.4 percent, 3 percent of voters backed a third party.
In Wisconsin and Michigan, 5 percent backed a third party.
"It's not about what Donald Trump did," Belcher said, making the point that Trump matched Romney's numbers in 2012. "It's what she failed to do."
Belcher and others argue that it's not just a matter of a natural drop in black voter support for Democrats with Obama, the nation's first black president, off the ballot.
Clemmie Harris, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University who specializes in African-American studies, said he warned Kerry of the dangers for Democrats 12 years ago.
He argued that the message Democrats used for past generations of minority voters might not work for millennial minorities.
"I stated that the Democratic Party will likely continue to fail in its desire to attract younger generations of black voters because its strategies for outreach to the African-American community were based on a civil rights era paradigm," Harris said.
"I pointed to the party's continued reliance on traditional modalities of black leadership from the baby boomer generation rather than build a new brand that would point towards the future by cultivating a new post-civil rights generation of African American leaders."
The pressure from progressives comes as other Democrats say the party must do more to win back white working-class voters from Trump - who rolled up figures across the country that surprised members of both parties.
The tensions within the Democratic Party over these issues can be seen everywhere from Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) rise in power to the debate over whether Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should stay on as the Democratic leader in the House.
"It is important for the Democrats to regain their standing with working-class voters, but not at the expense of other core constituencies like African-Americans or immigrants. That would be a huge mistake," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "If the Democrats treat this as a zero-sum game, they will further hurt their coalition rather than strengthening and growing it.
Former aides to Clinton acknowledged that they could have done more in the campaign to win over young black and Hispanic voters.
"There were a lot of levels of engagement, but ultimately I don't think we did enough," said one former Clinton campaign aide who dealt with millennial outreach. "And I don't think we did a good job in creating a message that resonated with everyone."
An aide at the Democratic Party also acknowledged the party's lack of focus on the key demographic. "They're right. No doubt. And the numbers bear out."
Democratic National Committee Political Director Amanda Brown Lierman took it a step further.
"It's not enough to show up at a black church or a historic black college every fourth October," she said. "We want to be a presence every month, every year."
Brown Lierman said the party has taken steps to improving upon grassroots efforts in all 50 states and promoting "the values we share" including healthcare, jobs and education as well as "pushing back against this administration's assault on civil rights."
Focusing on young voters can be a risky business.
Millennials are less likely to go to the polls than senior citizens. During the 2012 presidential election, 72 percent of Americans 65 and older cast their ballots, while only 41 percent of those 18-24 voted.
Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist, says the party needs to make a more concerted effort to get these voters to the polls.
"We've been looking for shortcuts when it comes to campaigning," Simmons said. "Much of the focus is spent trying to turn out middle of the road, right-leaning swing voters and I think the balance is wrong. We're overloaded on swing voters but we're under-resourced on base color persuasion."
Simmons isn't alone in that assessment.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said in an interview that he and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus were sounding the alarm bells to the Democratic National Committee throughout the 2016 cycle and well before that to not just focus on persuading right-leaning voters.
"Every member of the CBC was preaching that sermon for a decade," Cleaver said, adding that they were dismissed by the DNC because of polling, even while experts were saying the opposite.
Cleaver said ultimately, the millennials of color "were not inspired."
"That was not an inspirational election that we went through. It doesn't mean we lost them," he said. "We just have to do more to get them active again."