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Democrats need Black voters — time to campaign and spend accordingly

LOUISVILLE, KY – OCTOBER 13: Black Lives Matter protesters display their I VOTED wristbands after leaving the polling place at the KFC YUM! Center on October 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky. Tuesday marked the first day of early in-person voting in Kentucky, which lasts through November 2. (Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

This year, researchers estimate that overall ad spending by political candidates will hit $9.7 billion by Election Day in November. Yet, grassroots groups in Georgia trying to mobilize voters for the all-important turnout are so strapped for cash that they are pooling resources. Think on that for a moment: Limited financial support for voter organizing in Georgia, of all places, where Black engagement in two runoff elections in 2020 was the key to Democratic control of the Senate.

Political funding habits are hard to break. Donors direct their money to campaigns, parties and candidates, backing the horse they believe should win. But this traditional model, supporting campaigns that often direct millions of dollars into ads, isn’t enough anymore to put candidates over the finish line or — more importantly — effect the long-term legislative changes we seek to strengthen our society. 

In an increasingly diverse America, where reaching voters can decide elections and move the needle on crucial issues, why are donors and the Democratic establishment ignoring a winning strategy and under-investing in the grassroots groups that have proven their ability to engage voters? And what can be done to change how resources are prioritized to ensure an ongoing winning strategy? 

We need engagement that transcends single election cycles. When grassroots organizations are properly supported and have the ear of the community, they become trusted messengers that can counter misinformation and sway voters for the long term. We don’t have the luxury of pinning our hopes for change on one single election. 

But the Democratic Party is still relying on charismatic candidates to win voters’ hearts and minds on their own. It is dangerous to put all of our eggs in one basket. Former President Obama was a charismatic candidate and president who was well-loved by many. But so was former President Trump. 

Democrats needs organizations with relationships in communities to register voters, urge them to show up and to constantly remind them of the power of their voice and their vote. In recent years, we’ve seen this ongoing expansion of new groups on the scene. And we need them now more than ever, not just for the upcoming midterms but as part of a larger movement to save our democracy. 

For these organizations to fulfill this mission-critical work, they need financial support. The Democratic Party and candidates can set the example for donors by seeding these groups with funding, showing supporters and voters that grassroots organizations play a pivotal role in elections. 

Case in point: Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) is in a big race for Los Angeles mayor. And while her opponent, a millionaire, can outspend her on ads and the like, Bass, a community activist with deep local roots, has the power of the people behind her which gives her a real edge. 

Creating a fully funded ecosystem focused around inclusive and community-led mobilization will give us a 365-day winning strategy. This ongoing, values-driven movement will live beyond one election cycle to develop the solid base we need for continuous engagement. With an electorate increasingly fired up by grassroots messaging, translating the will of the people into victory at the polls means reaching often overlooked voters where they are.

Black voters are essential to winning elections. Even after securing the White House and Congress for the Democratic Party in 2020, Black voters are still seen by some Democratic funders as election participants rather than power brokers. The grassroots organizations engaging the Black electorate are under-funded, lacking the resources they need to overcome the obstacle of new voter suppression laws. Democrats looking for a midterm victory cannot afford to overlook these groups, which are key to turning out the Black voters who may decide pivotal races.  

America’s growing diversity is a value add that we need to tap into more. It is time for Democrats to fully embrace the needs and wishes of its growing and diverse voting base that is being fueled, in part, by progressive movements for justice and equity. For long-term sustainable change, our approach to elections must be different because our electorate is now different. We are not the same country we were 20, 15 or even 10 years ago. 

Black, Hispanic and Asian registered voters historically lean Democratic. And we’ve continued to see a rise in these numbers over the years, with the non-white voting population playing an ever-larger role in the nation’s electorate.

Recent election wins by Democrats are rooted in local organizing of a new powerful progressive base. This base includes Black voters working to overcome election restrictions that have long directly them, as well as voters who might have thought themselves moderate but are outraged by the overturning of Roe v. Wade

The Beltway is not America. Grassroots groups are firing up voters with our progressive agenda, pushing moderate Democrats, including President Biden and Congress, to be more responsive to our concerns. And with that energy coming from outside of the Beltway, we need people-centered fundraising efforts that focus on voter priorities and concerns, rather than messages focused on candidates. This shift will direct resources to groups that in turn will convey to voters why casting a ballot matters and the changes they can catalyze by actively participating in our democracy.

Yet, Beltway political consultants, who are overwhelmingly white men, are doubling down on establishment politics, advising the party and its candidates to keep it safe by appealing to the swing voter instead of catering to the needs of voters of color. They also use white-led polling firms and direct obscene amounts of funding to political TV ads, which we know don’t have real impact and support mainstream, white media conglomerates. A 2020 Yale study showed that “regardless of content, context, or audience, those pricey commercials do little to persuade voters.” Instead, we need more funding in the hands of the people — an approach to voter engagement that has proven results

Coalition-building is the future. Campaigns are won through well-supported localized, on-the-ground grassroots organizing and messaging that moves audiences into action. Republicans know this all too well. But we see Democratic funders going back to a funding model that puts money into the hands of individual candidates instead of fueling progressive movements that can reach voters locally. This is despite gains made in the last five years focused on supporting a robust network of groups and organizations doing the heavy lifting of voter engagement, which goes beyond just getting the vote out but building a political infrastructure that is far more inclusive and truly seeks to strengthen our democracy.

It’s time to challenge traditional funding models to reflect the new and diverse Democratic base and our priorities. When movement and message work together, we win. When we fund and support grassroots mobilization of voters energized by progressive priorities, we win. When we fully embrace the diversity of our nation and voting rights for all, we win.  

Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown are the co-founders of Black Voters Matter Fund. 

Tags 2022 midterm elections bipoc voters Black voters Democratic Party Democrats Karen Bass Obama Politics voters Voting

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