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The Other Swing Voter

No one’s paying much attention to one chunk of the electorate that could prove decisive in 2020. To recognize the other swing voter is to decenter the white moderate in the body politic—where she and especially he has been positioned.

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Lawrence Bryant / Reuters // The Atlantic,

We needed some air. The room’s high ceilings had been stuffed with roping hugs and raining tears, with eyes and smiles wider than the television announcing the impossible, with raised arms and shouts of “Thank ya, Jeesus-aaa!”

The storefront office of the Black United Front was full in so many ways. We seemed to feel it all at once on the evening of November 4, 2008. And hear it.

We poured out onto the sidewalk of North Broad Street, the main artery of North Philadelphia. The entirety of this sprawling and struggling black community, blocks from Temple University, where I was a doctoral student, seemed to be out there that night, amassing on the sidewalks, or joining the parade of waving and honking older black people.

Black youth were just as jubilant in their rimmed-out cars. Subwoofers in trunks thumped bodies full of hip-hop that swung our heads up and down. Beats and lyrics fluctuated. Young Jeezy hadn’t yet dropped the young black anthem of the moment, “My President,” with the hook:

My president is black, my Lambo’s blue

And I’ll be goddamned if my rims ain’t too

But the song was coming like the parade of cars down North Broad Street. A worn-out pickup truck approached, slowly. I stared into its open cargo area. I gaped at three young black males clutching a huge pole and waving a gigantic American flag. Others saw and cheered. I blinked—hard. Same sight. All real, like the stunning election results.

The ethereal flag-bearers smiled at their sidewalk audience and rolled on by. My most vivid memory of the night Barack Obama was elected president of the United States rolled on by.

I do not know whether these young black men voted earlier that day. I do not know whether their sisters voted either. But I do know that a critical mass of people like them did vote that day—one of the deciding factors in Obama’s victory in 2008. And I do know that a critical mass of people like them did not vote eight years later—one of the deciding factors in Hillary Clinton’s defeat. And I do know that many people like them swing from voting Democrat to not voting at all.  

The common conception of the swing voter is one who shifts between voting Republican and voting Democrat. These center-right or center-left voters are typically white and older. Meanwhile, people of color and young people, and especially young people of color, are more likely than white people and older people to swing between voting Democrat and not voting (or voting third party). These are America’s other swing voters. Othered because they are typically young and not-white. Othered because they are hardly recognized at the table of political agency. Othered because they are primarily recognized at the table of political shame when they don’t vote. Othered because Americans refuse to recognize how voter suppression and depression affect their agency. Quietly, though, they are voicing their agency, declaring the Democratic Party irresponsible for the candidate choices it makes, swinging, and deciding elections.

Americans use many names for these other swing voters, other than swing voterIrregular voteroccasional voter, or other such labels fail to capture how those vacillating between voting Democrat and not voting at all are swinging elections. Nonvoter conflates many distinct groups. There is a profound difference between the nonvoter who doesn’t assess the Democrat (or Republican), because she has no intention of voting, and the other swing voter who assesses the Democrat, dislikes her, and decides not to vote (or votes third party). There is a profound difference between the nonvoter who refuses to vote no matter what, and the other swing voter who ended up not voting, because her original dislike for the Democrat prevented her from overcoming being purged from the voting rolls, the difficulties of registering to vote, the appeals of anti-Democrat Russian trolling, the loss of already low wages, and the long lines on Election Day.

Among registered black voters, 19 percent who did not cast a ballot in the 2016 election said it’s because they disliked the candidates or their campaign issues, up from 3 percent in 2012, when Obama was on the ballot, according to the Pew Research Center. Disliking the candidates or their campaign issues was also the reason given by 25 percent of those “Hispanic registered voters” who did not cast a ballot in 2016, up from 9 percent in 2012.  

As the proportion of white voters and older voters declines in the electorate, and if Democrats continue to lose non-college-educated whites, the other swing voter’s importance will only increase for Democrats in 2020 and beyond. Today, the other swing voter is prototypically young and black. Tomorrow, the other swing voter will probably be prototypically young and Latino.  

Democrats are busy debating which candidate is the most electable, meaning which candidate has the best chance to defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Differing forecasts are based on differing autopsies of the 2016 presidential election. Some Democrats say Clinton lost because she lost the swing voter; therefore, Democrats need a candidate who can win back the swing voter (denoting white people). Other Democrats say Clinton lost due to a decline in turnout; therefore, Democrats need a candidate who can turn out the party’s base (denoting people of color). Still other Democrats are urging their party to focus on both, as they search for another candidate like Obama in 2008, who can woo white swing voters outside Philadelphia and also those young black men waving the enormous American flag before my stunned eyes.

I have long advocated for increasing turnout while being uncomfortable with the terminology of this debate. I could not pinpoint a replacement term for turnout until now. I could not pinpoint the source of my discomfort until now.

White swing voters are largely treated like political free agents who must be persuaded to vote for candidates they like. People of color and young people are treated like political cattle who must be whipped into shape to turn out for candidates they often don’t like. Whoever compels change is politically free. Whoever is compelled to change is politically captive. Candidates and campaigns routinely change their profile—often by moving to the middle—to better attract the white swing voter in the general election. But people of color and young people usually find that the change has come at their expense.

Don’t get me wrong: I think all Americans should always vote. I think voting is extremely important. But candidates and their policies are more important. In our political environment, young black voters receive lectures on the importance of voting, while white swing voters receive memos on the importance of candidates. In other words, young black voters are encouraged to vote. White swing voters are encouraged to vote for candidates.

In a word, turnout encapsulates the long-standing paternalism of too many Democrats toward people of color, young people, and especially young people of color who don’t always vote. By contrast, talking about the other swing voter restores their political freedom and agency.

Other swing voter is not a perfect title. How can they be called swing voters when they sometimes don’t vote? But throughout American history, to not vote has been to vote. The history of successful electoral campaigns is as much the story of stopping women and people of color and immigrants and disabled people and young people and prisoners and low-income people from going to the polls as it is of attracting people to the polls.

People of color and young people do not merely swing between voting Democrat and not voting solely on the basis of whether they like Democratic candidates. Dislike of Democratic candidates combined with being subjected to voter-suppression policies and voter-depression messaging can push other swing voters over the edge into not voting. Having to deal with both a Democrat they don’t like and policies and messaging obstructing their voting can swing them into not voting, as it did in 2016. If they only dislike the Democratic candidate, and do not have to deal with voter suppression and depression, then they might be more likely to vote. If they only had to deal with voter suppression and depression, and not with disliking the Democrat, then they might also be more likely to vote, as they did in 2008 and 2012 for Obama.

As individuals, the other swing voter is similar to the white swing voter. While the white swing voter assesses the Republican and Democrat and decides whom to vote for, the other swing voter assesses the Democrat and decides whether to vote. These similar individuals function in similar political environments of bigotry, distrust, misinformation, and fear. But these similar individuals also function in distinct political environments. The white swing voter’s political environment is largely shaped by voter encouragement and support. The other swing voter’s political environment is largely shaped by voter suppression and depression. The white swing voter is more likely to be ushered to the polls. The other swing voter is more likely to have to leap over hurdles to reach the polls.

Young people and people of color have been the primary targets of voter-suppression policies in Republican-led states. Young black voters have been the primary targets of depressive messaging about Democratic candidates packaged in pseudo-pro-black rhetoric by Russian agents and Trump-campaign agents urging them to not vote or to vote third party. During the 2016 election, Trump helped mass-manipulate people of color into not voting by fueling their animosity toward Clinton. He mass-manipulated white swing voters into voting for him by fueling their animosity toward people of color.

A month after the 2016 election, Trump gloated about the favorable swing of the other swing voter. African Americans “didn’t come out to vote for Hillary,” he said. “They didn’t come out. And that was a big—so thank you to the African American community.” Trump can thank the African American community publicly, but privately he can thank his campaign’s efforts to suppress and depress African Americans into not voting..

About 6 million Obama voters from 2012 chose Trump in 2016, and nearly all of these voters were white. Obama-to-Trump voters are known as the prototypical swing voters of the era—when they should be known as the prototypical white swing voters of the era. Another 4.4 million Obama voters did not vote in 2016, and an additional 2.3 million (who were more likely younger) supported third-party candidates, amounting to 6.7 million—more than the number of Obama-to-Trump voters, who received the bulk of the post-election attention.

The swing was mainly black people and young people. Rates of voting among youngsters increased from 2012 to 2016 for all racial and ethnic groups, except young black voters, whose voting rate declined 5 percent. Registered voters of color made up 25 percent of all voters who cast a ballot during the 2016 election, but 42 percent of those who didn’t cast a ballot. Among the young registered voters who remained home, 30 percent were white, 43 percent were Latino, and 46 percent were black.

The impact of the black swing voter is shown most clearly in three states Clinton lost by a combined 80,000 votes: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. In Michigan, more than 75,000 Obama voters in Detroit alone did not vote in 2016. In Wisconsin, Clinton received 230,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012. Much of the difference came from Milwaukee, which had the lowest voting rate in 16 years. In Philadelphia, one post-election study found that the greater the percentage of black people at a precinct, the lower its voting rate, leading to Clinton losing an estimated 35,000 votes.  

The surge of white voters without college degrees for Trump was seen by some as the deciding factor in Trump’s election. Why can’t the white swing voter and the other swing voter both be deciding factors? For example, the support of white non-college-educated voters for Democrats declined 5 percent between Obama and Clinton. What was the percentage decline in support between Obama and Clinton among black voters? Five percent. Whereas 12 percent of white Obama voters supported Trump, 11 percent of black Obama voters didn’t vote..

With these figures in mind, it is easy to point to turnout as the Democrats’ salvation for winning back the White House in 2020. But turnout advocacy, which supposes Democrats have the advantage with higher turnout, is out of date in Trump’s America. Democrats should be wary of the second major group of white swing voters: white Americans swinging between not voting and voting Republican. Democrats should be wary of white nonvoters.

Trump now dominates non-college-educated whites, who are overrepresented among white people who do not regularly vote. Higher voting rates among all Americans in the 2020 election are likely to favor Trump Republicans in the midwestern swing states, where an outsize number of non-college-educated whites reside. Higher turnout of all Americans could result in Democrats winning the popular vote by a greater margin than in 2016 and still losing the Electoral College..

In the Trump era, Democrats win presidential elections when they concentrate on—or are helped by—the swings of voters, white and nonwhite, older and younger—swings resulting from similar decision making and distinct political environments. It is no longer about turnout. For Democrats to talk turnout is to talk how to lose. For Democrats to talk swing voters is to talk how to win. The Democratic candidate who can attract white moderates, people of color, and young people is the most electable. That is the Democratic candidate who has the best chance at defeating Trump.

But valuing the other swing voter like the white swing voter is about more than defeating Trump. It is about the Democratic Party defeating GOP voter depression and suppression. It is about defeating Trumpism within the Democratic Party.

For too many Democrats, these older white moderates swinging between Republican and Democrat are more than swing voters. They are the soul, the representative, the mainstream, the center, the middle America flanked by out-of-touch extremists on the far left and far right. For them, older white moderates are the flag-bearers of the Democratic Party, of America. Not Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Not black women. Not young people. Especially not young black men joyfully fluttering that American flag in the parade hovering before my stunned eyes.

On that historic night 12 years ago when Americans elected their first black president, miles from where the older, white Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution, these young black men elected themselves the standard-bearers of America—even though they had never really been the standard Americans. Their youth, their blackness, rendered them the other Americans, if American at all.

To recognize the other swing voter is to decenter the white moderate in the body politic—where she and especially he has been positioned since the founding of the United States. To decenter the white moderate is to render the most disregarded groups in our society equal to them in political value. To equalize the most disregarded groups is to transform them from unruly political cattle into reasoning political agents. To see other swing voters as reasoning political agents is to grasp their longing for candidates that endear themselves to them, policies that radically transform their lives, and a political environment that frees them to vote into existence those candidates and their policies.

To see their longing for endearing candidates and transformative policies and a free political environment is to witness their yearning for the American flag to mean something to them—to again fly it high in the heart of North Philadelphia, as I stare on, as America stares on, as history stares on—after their candidate defeats Donald Trump.

[IBRAM X. KENDI is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.]