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Election 2016: An Analysis of the Role of Race at the Halfway Mark

This election year stands as a fascinating test of what we know—or think we know—about the confluence of race and politics.

By Kareem Crayton

As this frenzied primary season draws to a close, the respite before the general election begins in earnest to choose the forty-fifth U.S. president offers a chance for reflection and assessment. With several shocks along the road to the nomination, one of the more fascinating aspects of this process is the evolving, complex role of race and ethnicity in separating the victors from the also-rans.

On the Democratic side, the most unsurprising part of this campaign has been the extent to which African American voters shaped the contest for delegates. With the nation’s first African American president (who remained neutral) completing his final term, support from this solid Democratic constituency has been a focal point in the strategies of both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Roberta Rampton, “Sanders Meets with Obama, Says President Will Remain Neutral in Primary Race,” Reuters, Jan. 28, 2016; Brooks Jackson, “Blacks and the Democratic Party,” FactCheck.org, Apr. 18, 2008. As was true in the 2008 campaign, the string of primaries starting in South Carolina (where African Americans are nearly half the electorate) supplied a delegate margin that ultimately determined the nominee. Nate Silver, “Black, Youth and Latino Turnout, and Obama’s Electoral Map,” fivethirtyeight.com, May 11, 2008. With a consistently strong performance among African Americans this time, Secretary Clinton developed a lead that has proven beyond the reach of Senator Sanders. Andrew Rafferty, “Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton Score Big Super Tuesday Primary Wins,” NBC News, Mar. 2, 2016.

The GOP, for its part, has followed a rather uncommon course in its primary contests. Amidst the uncertainty of having the largest field of candidates in the modern political era, mostly overlooked is that this year featured the most racially diverse group of Republican aspirants in the party’s history. Halimah Abdullah, “A More Diverse Slate of Republican Presidential Possibles,” CNN, Feb. 26, 2014. The top tier of candidates featured an African American along with two Latinos (both of Cuban decent). And these were far from fringe candidates—all of them were well funded and had gained notoriety among key party constituencies. In fact, these three candidates held the top spots in the field after the opening contest in Iowa. Iowa Republican Primary, google.com (last updated June 19, 2016). Compared with the Democratic side of the ballot, the Republican challengers were also more racially diverse and younger. Yet, none of these distinctions proved sufficient to overwhelm the most unconventional of nominees in history, billionaire (and political newcomer) Donald Trump.

Influencing both of the primary campaigns were policy issues related to racial and ethnic identity. Arguably the most pressing substantive difference between the parties was on immigration, which has been framed with reference to the Latino and Muslim groups. Donald Trump has made several controversial statements about deporting undocumented immigrants in the country and (at least temporarily) barring entry both to visitors and immigrants based on religion. Alex Pfeiffer, “Who Is More Hardline on Immigration: Ted Cruz or Donald Trump?,”  Daily Caller, Mar. 9, 2016; Press Release, Campaign of Donald Trump, Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration (Dec. 7, 2015). In response, Clinton has pointedly criticized these ideas as insensitive to these communities and also inconsistent with core American principles of inclusion and pluralism. Janell Ross, “The Poignant Moment when Donald Trump’s Immigration Policies Were Made Real for All to See,” Wash. Post, Mar. 10, 2016.

Both contests have produced surprising results. Few might have guessed that out of the 17 Republican candidates, including many with long political résumés, Donald Trump would emerge as the presumptive nominee. And while she has now secured the Democratic nomination after a strong finish in the last round of primaries, Secretary Clinton has been surprised by a deceptively strong challenge from Bernie Sanders in several states, including Michigan and New Hampshire (two of the primaries Clinton won in 2008; seeElection Guide 2008: Democratic Contests,” N.Y. Times (n.d.)).

Notwithstanding the unpredictable nature of this presidential contest so far, much of what awaits in the general elections should come as no surprise. America’s voting age population has grown increasingly diverse, adding pressure on the GOP to reach beyond its traditional campaign model in national contests. William H. Frey et al., Am. Enter. Inst., America’s Electoral Future: How Changing Demographics Could Impact Presidential Elections from 2016 to 2032 (Feb. 2016). Appealing to white voters as a first-order strategy is no longer sufficient to win the White House; Mitt Romney won close to 60 percent of the available white vote (three percentage points more than Ronald Reagan did in 1980), yet he handily lost the 2012 election. Roper Ctr. for Public Opinion Research, How Groups Voted in 2012; How Groups Voted in 1980. And these changes are a sign of things to come; non-white voters account for two-thirds of the electorate’s growth in the past four years.

In terms of geography, “purple states” (the most competitive in presidential races) feature electorates in which people of color form a major share of the voting population. YouGov.com, Not All States Are Red or Blue; Esther Elizabeth Suson, “Swing States to Watch in the 2016 Election,” POTUS 2016, June 16, 2015. In this light, Trump’s rather heated rhetoric about Latinos and Muslims poses a serious challenge. The nominee’s more recent assertions of bias about a sitting federal judge due to his ethnicity has only deepened the angst in his party about its challenges in appealing to Latino voters. Nina Tottenberg, “Who Is Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the Man Trump Attacked for His Mexican Ancestry?,” Nat’l Pub. Radio, June 7, 2016.

Democrats face distinct challenges in many of the same critical states. While non-white voters have strongly favored Democrats in recent years, election law changes threaten to make balloting more complicated. Chris Cillizza & Jon Cohen, “President Obama and the White Vote? No Problem,” Wash. Post, Nov. 8, 2012. Republican legislatures in North Carolina and Wisconsin (two major battle grounds) enacted new laws requiring voter identification. N.C. State Bd. of Elections, Voter ID Requirements in NC;  State of Wis. Gov’t Accountability Bd., Voter Photo ID Law Information; Wendy Underhill, Nat’l Conference of State Legislatures, Voter Identification Requirements; Voter ID Laws (Apr. 11, 2016). Similar new provisions have limited the time for early voting. Brennan Ctr. for Justice, Voting Laws Roundup 2014 (Dec. 18, 2014). While facially neutral, these laws (the details of which include some telling exceptions (Suevon Lee & Sarah Smith, “Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about Voter ID Laws,” Pro Publica, Mar. 9, 2016)) impose burdens disproportionately affecting voters of color. John R. Logan & Jennifer Darrah, The Suppressive Effect of Voter ID Requirements on Naturalization and Political Participation (Jan. 2, 2008). For example, eliminating Sunday voting, largely viewed as a reaction to the successful Souls to the Polls program, removes an effective method of organizing African American voters. If they withstand legal challenges (see Anita Earls, “New Strict Voter ID Laws Challenged in Court,” Moyers & Co., Mar. 6, 2015), these barriers will require Democratic groups to redouble efforts to maintain turnout levels in crucial battleground states. A recent decision by the governor of Virginia to restore the voting rights of about 200,000 citizens with past felonies (see Van R. Newkirk II, “Governor McAuliffe’s Gambit,” Atlantic, Apr. 27, 2016) may aid this trend, assuming that this executive order survives a GOP legal challenge. See Laura Vozzella, “GOP Sues to Block McAuliffe Order to Let 200,000 Virginia Felons Vote,” Wash. Post, May 23, 2016.

One final note that bears mentioning: As in every presidential election, the contours of this campaign will be shaped as much by what the candidates plan as by the unexpected events that happen between now and November. Surprises at home and abroad will press both the Clinton and Trump campaigns to respond and (where necessary) to improvise effectively. One very somber example comes from Orlando, Florida, the site of the deadliest mass shooting in this nation’s history. See Ralph Ellis et al., “Orlando Shooting: 49 Killed, Shooter Pledged ISIS Allegiance,” CNN, June 13, 2016. As with the shooting massacre only last year in Charleston, South Carolina (see Jeffrey Collins & Jonathan Drew, “1 Year after Church Shooting, Much Is the Same in Charleston,” Associated Press, June 12, 2016), this horrific moment raises questions about the ability of minority communities (defined by race and sexual orientation) to remain secure in public spaces. Each candidate has pressed an assessment about what happened and what policy steps might prevent it from occurring again. Among the chief duties of every president is speaking to the nation in times of tumult or uncertainty. These rarely foreseen emergencies provide crucial tests of a candidate’s mettle in offering aid to a community (and even a nation) in distress. In this particular case, the candidates’ reactions and handling of this issue in the weeks to come will doubtless bear heavily on the campaign in Florida, the largest of the battleground states.

When these various factors are taken together, the election of 2016 stands as a fascinating test of what we know (or think we know) about the confluence of race and politics. With both the party conventions and the general election to come, the next six months will doubtless provide more twists and turns before the November voting commences.

Keywords: litigation, diversity, inclusion, election 2016, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, race and ethnicity


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