In the early days of 2018, two leading Democratic groups commissioned a study on how best to engage and mobilize African-American voters. The impetus was the special Senate election in Alabama in which a groundswell of black voter turnout led to the shock election of Democrat Doug Jones.
The groups, Color of Change and Priorities USA, wanted to understand how that outcome had come to be and whether it was duplicatable nationally. What they discovered was that conventional wisdom about how Democrats should go about discussing Donald Trump was all wrong. Rather than galvanizing African-American voters, the president was depressing them. More respondents (39 percent) said they felt less motivated to vote since Trump’s election than those who said they felt motivated by the 2016 results (37 percent).
Those findings, including similar ones found in other surveys, had a profound impact on strategist and operatives, convincing them that the party needed to restructure its campaign messaging. Over the next nine months, the Democratic Party’s campaign committees and individual candidates began paying less attention to the president, even as he continued to demand the media spotlight and dominate the national political conversation. And when they did talk about Trump, those candidates were advised to actively try and de-emphasize him. The president was not a uniquely dangerous figure, the new framing went. Instead, he was something duller but equally fearsome: a Republican incumbent.