WASHINGTON — Historically, Democrats have waited until after there’s a nominee to start significant black voter mobilization efforts. Typically, it begins just a few weeks out from Election Day.
So far, some state parties and campaign operatives are starting to do more robust outreach efforts, the Democratic National Committee is set to unveil a leadership council focused on the issue, and the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities has tasked two veteran black media operatives with targeting Donald Trump.
But with Trump on the ballot — and Barack Obama off it — some Democrats want the serious general election efforts to begin a lot earlier, and worry that they aren’t.
"Many of the political committees and campaigns seem to be a standstill when it comes to planning and moving money into programs that will turnout base democratic voters,” Quentin James, a Democratic strategist said. “Coming out of the 2012 cycle, we saw African-American voters cast ballots at a higher rate than white voters for the first time. I'm not a rocket scientist, but it seems a smart strategy would be to double down on turning out that demographic."
“People are tired of the last-minute money,” one well-connected Democrat said, alluding to a trend in recent years to put resources into black outreach beginning in the fall. “That is a huge concern and they don’t want that. They want see that early investment. It needs to happen on the ground and now.”
(Asked whether the DNC had plans to mobilize black voters in particular, spokesperson said "traditionally, the nominee hires field staff via the coordinated campaign, and diversity is taken into consideration.")
Operatives see an imperative with Trump — and an opportunity for the party. Polls have indicated that Trump is currently deeply unpopular with black voters. President Obama, whose birth certificate was once the subject of Trump’s conspiracy fanning, has been critical of the candidate. Other stories have been either been reported or revisited over the last year, as well, like Trump’s decision to take out a full-page ad calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five — the five teens who were later exonerated for the rape of a banker in a Central Park — in New York newspapers.
One popular opinion in D.C. for getting started early: Trump on the ticket has put some states in play for Democrats. And some state parties have already begun mobilizing black voter efforts.
The Georgia Democrats, said to be among the furthest along in the country, have 16 new paid staffers — and more beginning as soon as this week — who are working on a new field effort, dubbed "New Day GA", to turn out the party's base in November.
Marlon Marshall, the Clinton campaign’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, and senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan have briefed the Georgia Democrats, telling operatives inside the party that the Clinton campaign considers it a "Tier 2" state — not a swing state (Tier 1), but one the campaign will be watching as potentially winnable.
"We're developing an infrastructure that's built within the state party and built to last," Michael Smith, communications director for the Democratic Party of Georgia told BuzzFeed News. "Georgia is in play this year, and we aren't waiting around or wasting any time. The work has already begun."
An Ohio Democratic Party official said they have about 70 paid staffers on the ground, where the party is trying to elect former Gov. Ted Strickland to the U.S. Senate against Sen. Rob Portman. (Republicans have about 25 staffers in Ohio.) The state party contends their outreach to black voters is year-round — bolstered by Nina Turner, the party engagement chair and a prominent Bernie Sanders backer — and has, for instance, focused heavily on voter access.
But black Democrats want to see a more coordinated effort that ties together the national committees and the outside groups. For its part, the DNC will soon announce its African-American Leadership Council and embark on a multi-state tour to warn black voters of what’s at stake in the general election.
The council — designed to strengthen influence of black Democrats inside the party and curry favor with donors — will help the DNC “identify key leaders and activists who can help us with engagement, strategic development, and outreach within the larger African-American community,” Marilyn Davis, the director of community engagement at the DNC, told BuzzFeed News. The surrogates will be zeroing in on voting rights, the Supreme Court vacancy, affordable college education, and an argument about the threat Trump poses should he win the White House.
Some critics think there hasn’t been enough coordination so far between those kinds of party efforts and, for instance, the NAACP — which has its own GOTV, voter education, protection, and registration effort. “No one knows what their plans for the DNC, how all of this is going to mesh together,” the prominent Democrat said. “Yes, Sanders is still in the race and that can make things difficult, but [we’re not asking Clinton] to take over the DNC. There is a sense that people feel that waiting until after the convention is too late. There need to be some investments now.”
“This ain’t Obama on the ballot,” said a Democrat putting pressure on the DNC and campaigns to start earlier; the Democrat requested anonymity so as to not be seen as being openly critical of the party. “The fact is what you have is a real movement in Black Lives Matter and a lot of them say they aren’t going to vote. Take that and the education we need on voter protection and the right kind of voter ID you need to vote, it's [clear] this needs to happen early and not later.”
“It just feels like right now that we’re in a holding pattern,” said another Democrat with close ties to black donors.
(Davis said that the DNC is currently working with the other Democratic entities — the DGA, DSCC, DCCC, and others — to incorporate black outreach plans together, in addition to hiring Dejuana Thompson as director of black outreach, “to help us build and mobilize a grassroots program in the states.”)
Some of that coordination will require some finality to the Democratic nomination, which even though Clinton is all but assured to be the nominee, is still unresolved. Inside the Clinton campaign, Marshall, Clinton’s director of state campaigns and political engagement, is respected on turnout and engagement efforts, as is Brynne Craig, the campaign’s deputy political director who was a former national field director at the DCCC. The campaign has begun hiring in the states and at campaign headquarters.
Outside the Clinton campaign, a pair of black media consultants are now advising Priorities USA, a pro-Clinton super PAC, on how to paint a negative portrait of Donald Trump’s personal character and career.
Cliff Franklin and Jeff Johnson are working with Priorities on all its advertising, and playing an "even larger role" in advertising that focused on black voters, Barasky said. Franklin’s Fuse Advertising served as a key component to both of Obama’s presidential campaigns and Johnson, a former producer and host for Black Entertainment Television who is the principal of JIJ Communications, are teaming up to develop the ads.
Franklin and Johnson are working with Priorities on all its advertising, and playing an "even larger role" in advertising that focused on black voters, Barasky said.
Jarvis Stewart, a black Democratic strategist, praised the super PAC's general early move. "The actions of Priorities also show an understanding of how important down-ballot elections are to the party," he said. Now that most primaries are over candidates are looking for ways to elevate their name ID with independent and even some Republican voters before November."
The strategists plan to zero in on the seriousness of his potential presidency and what they contend is his deliberate decision to draw in white supremacist elements of the American electorate. The strategists will also focus on his record as a business leader, questioning the number of black executives he’s hired or have served on his company’s board of directors.
“The great thing about this candidate is you don't have to characterize him as anything — all you have to do is tell the truth,” Johnson said. There remain questions of how he’s run his businesses, Johnson said, as well as fairness over his wages to people of color, and general business dealings. "With Trump, there's this misnomer that you're creating a caricature [representative] of some ideal. Well our job is to tell the truth about who he's been.”
Franklin acknowledges a particular challenge: Even if Trump was something of a neutral figure to some black Americans, black people have always “appreciated” Trump’s business acumen, even amid increased scrutiny concerning his status as a billionaire, and the fact he's not entirely self-made. They want to change that perception. “He's spewing words and policies that’s in opposition to [black] values,” Franklin said. “Our [challenge] is to use messages and platforms to speak with truth and clarity for what is at stake for black voters. It's going to come with authenticity and clarity about who Donald Trump is.”
Johnson said he predicts Trump, a “master at getting people to believe he is who he wants them to believe he is,” will call his on “superficial dealings” he has with famous black people. “Let’s not just talk about Omarosa, or some black preachers.”
The strategists didn’t elaborate on what aspects of Trump’s history would be subject to ads, but they did maintain there wasn’t a lot treatment needed. “All we have to do is just point it out. The Central Park 5 is one of many things we can bring up. That his father was affiliated with the Klan is another,” Franklin said. “It's a long campaign.”
Still, the strategists acknowledge that little has been able to stick Trump. “He really has been Teflon Don during this process,” Franklin said.
Johnson believes Obama will play a significant role in helping defining Trump. “There are people who are looking to hear what he’s going to say,” Johnson said. “It’s important to hear from him...he’s been in that job for eight years, his perception of him as a person and a pot president is going to play a role.”
“The messages have to stick. It’s chess not checkers, and there’s been a lot of checker playing. We need to play chess,” Johnson said.
Added Frankin, “What we don’t want to feel in December is how we wished we could have mobilized the black vote.”
Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Darren Sands at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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