Identity politics and the race for the Democratic nomination

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Spring training is only a month away and there could be enough Democratic presidential candidates to fill a major league baseball roster. The best way for hopefuls to stand out in such a crowded field is to carve out a niche for his or her candidacy. 

A niche in a crowded primary means developing a unique selling proposition and identifying a target audience for your message. In a Democratic primary, the targets often are identity groups — part of what President Obama calls the Ascending Democratic Coalition of millennials, minority voters and women. 

{mosads}The ascendant coalition is on the rise. A clear majority of the 2020 Democratic primary voters will be women. In 2016, four of every 10 Democratic primary voters were black or brown. Young people were the catalysts for the improbable Bernie Sanders candidacy that came so close to denying Hillary Clinton the Democratic nomination.


Democratic women carried the day for their party in the midterm elections. There will be no shortage of female Democratic presidential candidates. Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) could all run. 

The candidate who has identified most closely with the powerful #MeToo Movement is Gillibrand. She made a name for herself in Congress for her determined opposition to sexual harassment and assault in the military and the attempts by Pentagon brass to cover up the problem. She also made many enemies on the Democratic side for her call for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign after allegations of sexual misconduct were directed at the progressive icon.


Enthusiastic support from millennials fueled Bernie Sanders’ rise in 2016. Millienials appreciated the novelty of Sanders’s candidacy. He was such a vivid contrast to established politicians like Hillary Clinton who parsed every word they said. Sanders was the new fresh face in 2016. Will Beto or Bernie be the new kid on the block for millennials in 2020?

Beto O’Rourkes’s candidacy is certainly idiosyncratic or even odd. Young voters will find O’Rourke refreshing because he speaks his mind. He has a strong social media following among millennials and he always has something for them to watch on YouTube. Recently his social media followers and the press were able to watch him while his dentist drilled down on his molars. During the exploratory phase of his campaign, the former congressman from Texas embarked on a solo tour through the southwest towards Iowa. He also publicly stated he was in a “funk” after losing his job in Congress. Is his next act a public presidential announcement during an interview with Oprah? Stay tuned!


Obama blazed the racial trail for the nation and the Democratic Party with two successful presidential campaigns. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker of New Jersey are poised to follow his path. 

Harris has impressive credentials. She served as the Attorney General of the largest state in the union before she became a United States senator. She like the former president has a mixed race heritage. Obama never made a big deal of his background and I don’t think Harris will either. But she did schedule her announcement to coincide with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.


Hispanics are the fastest growing power block in the Democratic Party. President Trump’s racism and population trends have made Latinos the key to improving the prospects for a Democratic candidate to win the electoral votes of Texas and Arizona.

Julian Castro has a killer resume. Former Texas congressman was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama Administration and was on Hillary Clinton’s list of potential running mates. Latinos are a major force in three states, California, Texas and Nevada that select delegates early in the nomination process. Castro may not win any of these states but he may pick up enough delegates at the beginning of the process to be a big presidential player.

Castro made his first major appearance in Puerto Rico after his announcement in Texas. He joined a group of congressional Democrats there to criticize the president for his failure to help the island after the devastating hurricane. Puerto Rico doesn’t have any electoral votes but it does send delegates to the national convention. Castro’s attack on Trump there does send a powerful message to the many Hispanic Americans of Puerto-Rican origin who live in New York, New Jersey and Florida.

The fall campaign

Identity campaigns work well in a primary when there are many candidates and few voters. These kind of campaigns are less effective in general elections when there are fewer hopefuls and a more diverse group of voters. Older white voters aren’t part of the ascendant coalition. Clinton’s failure to address the concerns of blue-collar white voters in the industrial Midwest cost her vital electoral votes. 

The eventual Democratic nominee will need to walk and chew gum at the same time. That candidate will need to galvanize the ascendant coalition and reach out to the disaffected voters who don’t feel Democrats care about them. You can win the nomination by doing one thing well but it takes two to get to the White House.

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is also a senior adviser to, and editor of, the blog at, a social media network for politics.

Tags 2020 campaign Al Franken Amy Klobuchar Bernie Sanders Beto O'Rourke Brad Bannon Cory Booker Democratic nomination Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Kirsten Gillibrand primary race

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