democratic primaries

Maybe the ‘Obama Coalition’ Was Just That: Obama’s

Senators Cory Booker (left) and Kamala Harris (right).
Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kamala Harris has dropped out. Cory Booker hasn’t qualified for December’s debate. Julián Castro missed November’s and is polling between zero and one percent nationally. At various points, all three were considered heirs apparent to the voting bloc that lifted Barack Obama to victory. And all three are strong arguments for why the vaunted “Obama coalition” might’ve been the ex-president’s alone.

Conventional wisdom has long held that re-creating Obama’s path to the White House hinged on building a base out of Northern whites, young people, and energized black and Latino voters. The last debate saw Harris and Booker each cast themselves as the candidate best equipped to accomplish this. “We’ve got to re-create the Obama coalition to win,” Harris said. “[Nobody] on this stage should need a focus group to hear from African-American voters,” said Booker. Neither has built a convincing case for themselves. Meanwhile, Joe Biden has consistently led polls of Democratic primary voters, including black and Latino ones, and most maneuvering from his nonwhite challengers has been aimed at undermining his dominance. A senescent white centrist might seem an unlikely inheritor of Obama’s supporters, but Biden is well on his way. “I’m part of that Obama coalition,” the 77-year-old said at the debate. “I have more people supporting me, in the black community, that have announced for me, because they know me. They know who I am.”

Almost every political figure upon whom pols and pundits have bestowed the “next Obama” moniker has traits in common: They’re invariably young, almost always nonwhite (Beto O’Rourke, who earned early plaudits from the ex-president, was a rare exception), and have an inspiring but necessarily vague message aimed at flattering their countrymen’s better angels. They embody the shifting demographics that strategists believe will define the electorate of the future: nonwhite with fluency navigating a multiracial milieu without making its occupants feel at odds. But Trump’s election has altered this calculus. White voters who dabbled in multiracial democracy during the Obama years have proven equally enticed by a white supremacist. In 2020, voters repulsed by Trump are less interested in making history and electing some nebulous candidate for America’s diverse future. They want to beat Trump. And most seem to have decided that a challenger whose case for electability is a superficial resemblance to Obama isn’t their best bet.

This isn’t to say that Harris, Booker, and Castro don’t have qualities that recommend them. Castro in particular has distinguished himself with his thoughtful platform aimed at poor people, undocumented immigrants, and the criminalized and incarcerated; Booker has the Trump era’s signature piece of bipartisan legislation under his belt with the First Step Act; and Harris has shined during adversarial exchanges with Republicans in Senate hearings. But it stands to reason that a person seeking to recapture the so-called Obama coalition should bear more than a passing resemblance to the man himself. And none come close: The ex-president’s mix of charisma, rhetorical skill, political savvy, and intelligence remain unparalleled in today’s Democratic Party, and make him a singular figure in modern politics regardless of racial background. His success was also specific to its time. Much of the American public had soured on George W. Bush’s leadership and warmongering by 2008, and Obama not only represented the most striking contrast, he was one of the few senators in the race who hadn’t voted for the Iraq War. (He was not yet in the Senate at the time, but spoke out against the war beforehand.) This gave him an air of legitimacy with progressive voters that Booker and Harris — with their evangelism for charter schools and work as a prosecutor, respectively — are missing. Both were left with a narrow path to the nomination: Either convince black voters and white moderates that they were surer bets than Biden in the general election, or prove to progressives that their bona fides belied a pragmatism and diverse appeal that made them viable alternatives to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

None of it has worked. Their presumed constituencies have found their preferred candidates elsewhere. Older black voters have gravitated to Biden, with his political longevity and vows to preserve Obama’s legislative legacy, while younger black voters have been drawn to the structural change and revolutionary fervor peddled by Warren and Sanders, respectively. Hampering Booker, Harris, and Castro’s cases further was a lack of clarity regarding why an electorate that just backed Trump would suddenly be enticed by a less-galvanizing echo of his predecessor, the black president whose legacy Trump vowed to negate. Voters in 2020 won’t have suddenly lost their susceptibility to the president’s racist charms. And few on the Democratic side are willing to submit a candidate whose appeal to white people with questionable racial politics is dubious or unproven.

Given the Democratic electorate’s consuming desire to oust Trump, it’s unclear if Obama himself could’ve made it out of the 2020 primary. The eventual president trailed Hillary Clinton among even black voters in 2008 until he proved he could win overwhelmingly white electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire. The prospect of continued Republican governance is threat enough today that risk aversion is at a premium. Many voters — and black voters in particular — agree that it’s no time to roll the dice on an unknown quantity, as Obama would’ve been considered. This is by no means a universal consensus. The success of Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns suggest an appetite for democratic socialism that would upend the status quo. Pete Buttigieg is overperforming as a small-city mayor. Andrew Yang has built a coalition that, while almost negligibly small, has generated consistently higher polling numbers than either Booker or Castro.

But generally speaking, the assumption that nonwhite candidates would be best positioned to rebuild Obama’s coalition by virtue of their shared nonwhiteness and a handful of other superficial parallels hasn’t borne out. Democrats instead have thus far coalesced behind a white septuagenarian who fought against busing, implied that every black candidate before Obama was “unclean,” and had at least one other presidential campaign end ignominiously. They’ve done so largely because Biden is well-known and well-liked, has personal ties to the white Rust Belt voters who helped deliver Trump’s win in 2016, and boasts goodwill among liberal voters generated by his affiliation with Obama, who was extremely popular. Simply put, they think he’s the guy that the widest range of voters can agree on. And if this is the conclusion they’ve drawn a mere three years after Obama exited the White House, it’s worth asking whether his coalition, activated by a candidate with a profile similar to his own, was more fluky confluence of circumstances than replicable political strategy.

This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Obama’s activity around the Iraq War.

Maybe the ‘Obama Coalition’ was just that: Obama’s