Democratic Pollster Talks about Race and Politics

Political analyst Cornell Belcher tells GW audience that race remains the most powerful variable in U.S. elections.

Cornell Belcher
Democratic pollster and author Cornell Belcher says race is the biggest variable in U.S. politics.
March 24, 2017

Cornell Belcher has owned a front-row seat to some remarkable changes in American politics, starting in 2005 as pollster for then-Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean followed by similar work for both Barack Obama presidential campaigns.

Mr. Belcher told an audience at the George Washington University that race has played a major role in shaping U.S. politics, even before the country became a nation.

“It has trumped almost every variable there is,” he said.

“The origin of racial conflict in America is the date the first black slaves stepped onto the [shores of Jamestown in 1619],” Mr. Belcher said as he began a conversation on race and politics at the Marvin Center Tuesday evening. “The origin of racial issues in America politics predates American politics.”

Mr. Belcher was invited by the GW School of Media and Public Affairs to discuss his new book, “A Black Man in the White House,” in which he argues that the Obama presidency triggered a rise in racial-aversion that was evident in the 2016 election.

In beginning the conversation, Frank Sesno, director of the SMPA, said that race “is a conversation that we do poorly at in America” and that after the election of an African American president the racial divide “appears to have grown wider in America.”

Mr. Belcher shared data from the past eight years that he said shows the country hasn’t changed very much politically since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and predicted the loss of white Democratic voters for a generation.

“Think of the courage it took him to push the country forward on civil rights knowing the tremendous political price to his party,” Mr. Belcher said.

He noted that no Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the white vote since 1964. In the intervening years, however, the demographics of the country changed. America became browner and younger, he said. That is how Mr. Obama was twice elected, by building a movement of young progressive white, black and brown voters.

“This was not just about politics. Movements, especially and historically in African American communities, are spiritual, political and cultural,” Mr. Belcher said, describing conversations during the 2008 campaign in which Obama talked about the need to expand the electorate if he were going to have any chance of winning.

“Eleven percent of the people who voted for President Obama had never voted before,” Mr. Belcher said.

It was Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s inability to hold on to the coalition of younger and browner voters that determined the outcome, he said, because young people decided against choosing between the two major party nominees. He said the Clinton campaign made a mistake in assuming that she would pull in more white and women voters.

“Where she failed to hold tightly to the Obama coalition is right there on the margins with the younger folks. Eight percent of young African Americans voted third party, 6 percent of Latinos broke third party,” he pointed out. “Where she missed Obama’s margin almost exactly matches up with third-party performance.”

In the conversation that followed, one student wanted to know how much importance Mr. Belcher attached to the data and analytics.

“You know what matters in the end in campaigns? A good candidate with a good message. Barack Obama didn’t win because of good data. Barack Obama won because he was an aspirational figure.” He added, “George Bush didn’t win because of some brilliant tactic. Quite frankly, George Bush was quite likeable. He passed the beer test.”

People in the United States must have a conversation about race, racial politics and tribalism, he said, and failure to do so could have dire consequences.

“You young people are about to inherit this mess if we continue to kick it down the road,” Mr. Belcher said to the many students in the audience. “So you got to solve it.”