Apathy anew: Democrats’ biggest 2018 fear is low turnout among people of color

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Misael Avila has tried everything to convince his Latino community in central California to care more about politics. He has led voter-registration drives around Modesto. He’s personally knocked on voters’ doors. He has even hosted a congressional debate at his Catholic church.

It hasn’t been easy.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of apathy about these things,” he said. “For some reason, people are not engaged.”

Avila is the pastor of St. Frances of Rome Catholic church in California’s 10th Congressional District -- an area considered by both parties to be a major battleground in the race to control the U.S. House of Representatives. And although his work is non-partisan, the “apathy” he describes among Hispanic voters is a major challenge for Democrats with Election Day just eight weeks away.

The party’s liberal base is energized and infuriated, motivated by a deep antipathy to President Trump. But the enthusiasm runs deepest among an electoral bloc that is mostly white, female and affluent. To maximize their gains — they need to flip 23 GOP seats to take the House — Democrats need voters of color to show up.

“There is no blue wave in November 2018 without black or brown people,” said Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist.

[Read here about Republicans’ biggest worry in the countdown to Election Day.]

Democrats struggled to get voters of color to vote in midterm elections during the Obama era, when black and Latino participation (along with that of young voters) dropped sharply relative to higher-turnout presidential elections. The drop-off was at least partly responsible for the deep losses the party suffered in 2010 (when Democrats lost the House) and 2014 (when Democrats lost the Senate).

The problem has been obscured this election cycle in part because Democratic turnout has been exceptionally high during a series of special House elections, enough that many Republicans rate their base’s relative lack of enthusiasm a huge problem of their own.

But, critically, one Democratic strategist familiar with those races said that the biggest drivers of Democratic enthusiasm were white, college-educated voters, young people, and politically engaged Democrats. (The exception appears to be the Alabama Senate special election, where Democrat Doug Jones won an upset over an accused child molester.)

“We can’t assume high enthusiasm persists — particularly among demographic groups we have inconsistently engaged with in the past, including young voters, Latino voters and African American voters,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with the data. “Campaigns who haven’t adequately invested in GOTV (get-out-the-vote) could be disappointed on Election Day.”

Other Democratic strategists describe reaching out to voters of color as a challenge, but one they think they can surmount with a diligent campaign to reach out and communicate with them.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for instance, has undertaken a $25 million plan to reach out to the party’s core constituencies, including black, Latino, and Asian-American voters, according to an aide with the group. The effort includes on-the-ground voter contact and paid media, such as digital ads.

A DCCC aide said the group started researching how to reach these voters in 2017, during special elections in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District and South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, along with gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. The group has also conducted focus groups with Latino and African-American voters in a half-dozen states.

Trump’s presidency has given Democrats ample material to work with as they contact voters of color, whether highlighting his hardline position on immigration or his rhetorical equivocation after last year’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But strategists say they need to focus on a forceful, positive messages that connect with these voters’ lived experience, even if that means avoiding discussion of Trump.

“We’re the party that’s going to get something done for you,” Sanders said. “And that’s a message that I think is going to be effective.”

Sanders said that unlike previous midterm elections, when the popularity of the Democratic-backed Affordable Care Act was at a low, the party can once again embrace a message of health care. And unlike 2014 — when Democrats were focused on winning over mostly white voters in conservative states such as Iowa or Arkansas — the party is once again focused on winning over voters of color.

“I remember when we couldn’t even say President Obama or health care, we couldn’t do it,” Sanders said. “We could not run next to the president because it wasn’t an advantage for us with voters we’re trying to get.”

Avila, the pastor in the Modesto area, said until Trump’s victory, he was never involved with politics.

“That really woke me up,” he said. “It shook me.”

But it hasn’t been quite as easy to reach other members of his community. Avila’s church is part of a group called Faith in the Valley, a non-partisan organization that advocates for immigrants and disadvantaged people in the state’s Central Valley.

Before the primaries, the group tried to register new people to vote, Avila said, but ended up reaching only about 200 people.

“I was expecting more,” Avila said. “People told me it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty
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