As I watched the election returns Tuesday night, I was struck by the “optics” as the networks panned the Obama and Romney headquarters gatherings. These were large spaces—convention centers in Chicago and Boston—where supporters gathered to monitor the progress of the election and to cheer and/or lament the proceedings. I was not wearing my glasses, so I could not easily read the smaller captions signifying the location of the scene. Instead, I monitored the results on my iPad. I also turned down the sound down because the announcers and pundits annoyed me.
The funny thing is I noticed that I did not need captions or sounds to know which headquarters I was watching. This was not because the election seemed to trend in favor of the President; early in the evening, it was still quite a horse race and crowds in both camps were anxious and excited.
Rather, I could tell which room was being shown because I looked at the proportion of white people in the room. The Romney room was almost completely white. As the camera panned the room, there were more and more, well, white people. In contrast, no camera could pan the Obama crowd very long without coming across the face of a person of color. That is how I knew what I was watching.
This experience reinforced my assessment that no candidate will win a presidential election in this country again if her or his headquarters room on election night is that white.
Analysts have speculated on the myriad of elements that led to the outcome of the election. But one clear factor in play was the ability of Obama to mobilize communities of color to vote for him. The exit poll statistics are stark. Consider that 72% of voters this year were white, 28 % people of color.[i] Of that 28%, Obama won 80% of their votes.[ii] Overall:
- 59% of white people voted for Romney in contrast to 39% for Obama, however…
- 71% of Hispanics voted for Obama (27% for Romney)
- 73% of Asians to Obama (26% for Romney)
- 93% of Blacks for Obama (6% for Romney) [iii]
Blacks matched their record turnout of four years ago, while Hispanic and Asian turnout increased. All gave their votes to President Obama by record margins.
Several people have suggested that somehow, Obama’s appeal to people of color is very much a result of being a man of color himself. For example, in the last weeks of the campaign, various commentators debated whether blacks were voting for Obama because he was black.
Well, surprise. Of course lots of black people voted for Obama because he was black. I certainly did. But that is not the only reason I voted for him. The fact that voters prefer leaders who they see as similar to themselves is not earth shattering—we all tend to do that. But that preference does not eliminate one’s ability to analyze the leader’s position. Nor does it prevent one from analyzing the alternatives to that leader.
This is where Romney failed. Had he been a more compelling option for people of color, he could have eroded some of the support Obama garnered in this election. No, he couldn’t change the color of his skin. And I probably would not, at first glance, be attracted to his candidacy as much as to Obama’s. But I see myself as thoughtful and reflective. I most certainly could have been persuaded by an enlightened, cross-culturally adept candidate who took seriously my interests as a black constituent, even if he was white and Mormon. I don’t know if he could have won my vote, but he could have won my attention.
Romney lost voters of color—and the election—not only because these voters were drawn to Obama. He lost because many fled from him. I reject the notion that an older privileged white person can’t win over constituents of color. But if that white person is serious about winning those constituents, he or she had better develop skill and insight about difference, in particular cultural and racial difference. Otherwise, that white person cannot be a compelling and credible option for those constituents.
How does an aspiring candidate gain that skill and insight? Here are some tips for future Republicans, Democrats (I don’t believe this is wholly a partisan thing), and leaders of diverse communities in any walk of life:
1. Don’t think you can win and lead by pandering superficially to people who are not white. That won’t fill your headquarters ballroom with the winning combination of folks.
2. Rather, build a diverse coalition around you. Make sure your advisors are diverse, and that they are connected to diverse networks of constituents.
3. To be able to do this, you must do your own homework. You must develop your personal competence in navigating diverse communities so that you can be seen as a credible representative for people who are different from you.
By the way, this analysis applies not only to white candidates. The same strategy for success must be executed by whoever aspires to lead this country from this point forward. Now more than ever, competence in embracing and leveraging difference is mandatory.
But only if you want to win.