Seven years ago the GOP decided its existence depended on a plot to destroy the Obama coalition. It worked.
In the debate over whether Democrats should prioritize persuasion or turnout, Connor Lamb may have made a decent case for at least some persuasion this week, at least in districts Donald Trump won by 20 percent. But a piece in the New York Times last weekend may have an even greater impact on the future of the party.
In their op-ed “The Missing Obama Millions,” Sean McElwee, Jesse Rhodes, Brian Schaffner and Bernard Fraga note:
Our analysis shows that while 9 percent of Obama 2012 voters went for Mr. Trump in 2016, 7 percent — that’s more than four million missing voters — stayed home. Three percent voted for a third-party candidate.
Given the incredibly small margin of victory in the three states that swung the election (or five states if you include North Carolina and Florida), turning out just a small chunk of these voters likely could have swung the election from Trump.
McElwee et al aren’t arguing to ignore the “Obama-to-Trump” voters who have occupied much of the discussion about the 2016 election. Doing so would be a “false choice,” argues Josh Mound in the New Republic:
[B]y combining racial and cultural progressivism with an economic platform that’s equal parts Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter, Democrats can turn out Obama voters who stayed home in 2016 and win back some Obama-Trump voters.
Sure. Definitely. This could work in a lot of places.
But there are two words that are conspicuously absent from both pieces: voter suppression.
And I’m not talking just talking about the “three major voter suppression operations” the Trump campaign bragged about running during the 2016 campaign, likely with the assistance of data improperly obtained by Cambridge Analytica.
Voter suppression isn’t an incidental part of the “Missing Obama Millions” story. It is the “Missing Obama Millions” story.
After Barack Obama won in 2008 powered by the most diverse electorate in American history and massive turnout by young voters, America’s right launched two efforts that now seem inextricably intertwined.
It doubled down on white identity politics with the Tea Party. And when that movement, feeding on the backlash against the worst economic downturn in 60 years, helped win state houses and legislatures across the United States, it went whole hog into the most aggressive efforts to limit the right to vote since the 1960s.
Ari Berman described “The GOP War on Voting” in late 2011:
In a systematic campaign orchestrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council – and funded in part by David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who bankrolled the Tea Party – 38 states introduced legislation this year designed to impede voters at every step of the electoral process.
In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. And though 2014 saw the lowest voter turnout in 70 years, few people even bothered to note that 2016 was first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the VRA.
This was true even though a federal judge noted in the summer of 2016 that Republicans in North Carolina had passed restrictions on voting to that targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.”
One exception, of course, was Ari Berman who spread the voting rights gospel with his book Give Us the Ballot and made the case that the attempt to limit the franchise was the most under-covered story of the election.
In that context, “The Missing Obama Millions Story” reads as if it’s an A+ progress report in the GOP’s War on Voting.
We don’t know how many of these millions didn’t turn out because they couldn’t because the laws had been designed to make it difficult if not impossible. Did the the apathy built by a half decade of making them feel that their vote was worthless due to illegal gerrymandering in key swing states just win out? Or were they turned off by the Democratic Party itself, a ticket with two older white people, widespread assurances Clinton would win or the Trump campaign’s “psychographic” efforts to depress the vote?
We don’t know. But we need to find out.
The future of America will be decided by the future of what the electorate looks like. The GOP is doing everything it can to make it older and whiter. That’s what it’s voter suppression, immigration restrictions and attempts to sabotage the Census are all about.
Because if the future electorate looks like the Obama Coalition, everything the GOP is doing now will eventually backfire. That’s why we need to defend democracy with an aggressive pro-voting agenda.
But we also need to find those voters and find out why they stayed home and voted third-party. And I know just the man to do it.
The former president is in talks with Netflix to create TV shows and here’s my pitch for one.
Let’s find those voters.
Send Ari Berman to a county Obama won and Clinton lost. Have him sit down with a labor leader, an Indivisible activist, a religious leader. Find out what’s going on in the community. Then head to a fair, a high school football game, a mall to find someone who voted for Obama and didn’t show up in 2016. Ask that person if they’d be willing to do an interview about why she didn’t vote. Then bring them to a room to wait for the interviewer, who turns out to be… Barack Obama. In episode two, it could Michelle Obama. Or Barack and Michelle. Or Barack and Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris… You get it.
This show would only break through the frame of propaganda if the interviewees were chosen for their candor and the interviewers were willing to hear some rough truths. But these are exactly the kind conversations we’re going to have to have if we’re going to reactivate these missing millions. And if a former president surprising a voter isn’t entertaining enough, he could show up with Grace and Frankie.
That’s good TV. And it could save our democracy.