Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Centrists are going to learn the wrong lessons from Doug Jones' win

If we are even minimally concerned with social justice and equality, it's pretty simple to make the case that Democrats should fight for the interests of black voters. In recent years, however, a different argument has become popular: Democrats should campaign for black votes because this is a strategy that wins elections. It's a line of argument that lends itself to the sensibilities of a calculating, mercenary, and partisan political class of armchair quants and "data-journalists", so I don't think that we should be surprised by its popularity - but I also think that it's deeply suspicious, and extremely dangerous.

Consider last night's victory by Democrat Doug Jones over Republican challenger Roy Moore. Already, we are seeing headlines like African American Voters Made Doug Jones a U.S. Senator in AlabamaBlack voters just saved America from Roy Moore, and How Black Voters Lifted Doug Jones Over Roy Moore. And by some measures, that's exactly what happened. Jones has the backing of 96% of black voters, and black turnout was high at 29% - about three percentage points higher than their representation in the electorate would predict.

But if you insist on being a bottom-line obsessed demographic wonk, then I promise you, those aren't the numbers that the Democratic Party cares about. When a campaign strategist looks at race in Alabama, this is what she's going to see:


Yes, black Alabamans supported Jones almost unanimously - though they always support the Democrat almost unanimously. Yes, black Alabamans had good turnout - though they always have good turnout. Those numbers only improved on 2012 by a few percentage points at the very most, but none of this was decisive. 

What clearly changed between 2012 and 2017 is that Jones won 10% more white votes than Obama, while Moore earned 12% less than Romney - a swing of over 20 points. In comparison, black voters only gave Jones a 1% higher margin than Obama had.

Again: if you are a mercenary Democratic strategist, you are going to look at these numbers and decide that Democrats can take black voters for granted and need to focus on white voters. This is the lesson that Northam taught them in Virginia, and this is the lesson that Jones is teaching them in Alabama. The way you combat this is not to promote a politics of amoral demographic gaming, but to insist that Democrats need to fight for black voters regardless of what opportunistic (and largely superficial) data-wonkery suggests.