The Fanciful Quest to Revive the Obama Coalition

Former President Barack Obama is greeted by supporters as he participates in s rally for California Democratic candidates during a event in Anaheim, September 8, 2018. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Democrats are fooling themselves if they think anyone other than the 44th president can generate the massive minority and youth turnout they covet.

When asked what gives supporters of Julian Castro the idea that he can actually win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Henry Cisneros, who preceded Castro by a couple of decades as both mayor of San Antonio and secretary of housing and urban development, had a ready answer for Politico. He claimed that Castro’s launch event reminded him of nothing so much as the start of Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign, which combined a solid base of minority supporters with the sort of high-minded rhetoric that could inspire a broader base of young supporters.

That seems like wishful thinking, but it does point us toward the conceit of Castro’s long-shot candidacy as well as that of some of his prospective rivals’. In a crowded field of as many as two-dozen contenders seeking the chance to take on President Donald Trump next year, Obama’s example remains one to emulate.

While Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of Trump in 2016 can be credited to a great many factors, a major difference between her failure and the Democrats’ success in the two previous presidential elections was minority turnout. African-American turnout, mobilized by Obama’s historic candidacy, equaled the rate of white voters in 2008 and exceeded it in 2012. The number of Hispanic voters who headed to the polls in those two elections was far greater than in previous elections. Those two groups provided a crucial contribution to two decisive victories for the Democratic party.

So great was the impact of minority voters that it inspired despair among some Republicans after the 2012 election. With Hispanics constituting the fastest-growing demographic slice of the electorate and African-Americans now turning out at rates equal to whites, some in the GOP believed that the party would be doomed to permanent minority status unless it transformed itself to appeal to the voters who had helped put Obama over the top.

Yet instead of heeding the party’s 2012 “autopsy,” which recommended adopting immigration reform to attract Hispanic voters, Republicans chose Trump in 2016 — and won anyway. Hillary Clinton won black and Hispanic voters by margins similar to Obama’s, but both groups’ turnout plunged to pre-2008 levels. Trump received enough support among white working-class voters to win a few key Rust Belt states largely ignored by Clinton, and pulled off one of the most shocking political upsets in recent memory.

That leaves Democrats with a difficult question to answer ahead of 2020. Much of the discussion about their choices tends to revolve around whether they should focus on candidates, like former vice president Joe Biden, who they think can effectively compete with Trump for white working-class votes, or instead seek to concentrate on recapturing the minority enthusiasm of 2008 and 2012. But what is most agonizing about that choice is that they know they didn’t have to make it in 2008 and 2012. Obama was sui generis: not only an inspirational figure who drove black and Hispanic voters to the polls in record numbers, but also someone who could win the votes of the working-class whites who broke for Trump in 2016.

Candidates like Castro and Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker aim to walk Obama’s path to the presidency. They hope that their status as minority candidates and subtle efforts to tack toward the center of a Democratic field that tilts heavily to the left will allow them to recapture the Obama magic, and their hopes can’t be dismissed entirely. But, as Republicans have learned in the decades since Ronald Reagan bestrode the political stage, reassembling massively successful political coalitions that were largely dependent on the appeal of a unique individual is a tall order.

Would-be Republican successors could mimic Reagan’s optimism, his belief in American exceptionalism, and his concern for ordinary Americans. But only the Gipper could attract the kind of support from across the board that produced historic landslides in 1980 and 1984, because only he could articulate conservative ideas in a way non-conservatives found unthreatening. And though Obama’s political talents were lost on conservatives who blithely continued to predict his defeat until the votes were counted in 2012, his personality and his ability to speak to common values in a manner that resonated with independents guaranteed his success. (He continued to govern as an ultra-liberal, but that’s a separate matter entirely.)

Castro may be the sort of liberal centrist voters might not dislike, but he lacks Obama’s charisma. Harris has the sort of tough demeanor and go-for-the-throat instincts that may endear her to Democrats who want to destroy Trump, but it’s hard to imagine her inspiring the kind of liberal affection Obama did. And Booker, who spent much of his career masquerading as a centrist before tilting hard to the left when he entered the Senate, couldn’t approach Obama’s appeal no matter what he claimed to believe.

That doesn’t mean any one of the three couldn’t win, of course. As Obama demonstrated, if you can emerge as the clear choice of minority voters, you gain an enormous advantage in many states where African-Americans or Hispanics make up a huge percentage of the Democratic primary electorate. But insofar as the Obama coalition was assembled by a man of unique political talents, efforts to put it back together are likely to prove fanciful.

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