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If you see me walking around campus with my earbuds in, chances are I am listening to a podcast about politics. Post Reports, The Weeds, Political Gabfest, POLITICO Playbook Daily Briefing — you name it, I probably listen to it. Last month, I became a fan of the New York Times’s latest production, The Run-Up with Astead Herndon. Every Thursday morning, Herndon takes us through big moments in political history in an attempt to unpack the fate of our country and our growing frustrations with America’s political parties. In one of my favorite episodes of the season so far, Herndon explores “what Democrats and Republicans got wrong about voters” and their “flawed assumptions.”

After a losing political battle in 2012, when President Barack Obama successfully skirted into his second term, Republicans gathered for a wake-up call, otherwise known as the GOP Autopsy. This was an assessment that determined that the Republican Party’s platform and key values weren’t landing with the American people — mainly minority voters and young people. The report had a simple message: the GOP will have to make changes or else the party will face an existential threat. It highlighted key ways to build coalitions with Latino voters, namely by being more inclusive and comprehensive about immigration reform and fighting hard to regain the trust of voters of Color who have felt isolated from the party. 

The GOP had a solid reason to be so somber about its own future. When Obama landed in office, for the first and second time, his presidency was lauded as a transformative moment for the nation. That a bi-racial man born in Hawaii and raised as a global citizen could become president became a signal that America was also becoming more racially and culturally tolerant. Everyone from President Clinton to the New York Times Editorial Board said so. And, by the early 2000s the future of the country was already set in stone: in as early as 2005 it was projected that by the year 2050, people of Color would become the majority racial demographic in America.

In other words, with this set of factors, as Herndon discusses in the podcast, the GOP was operating under two main assumptions. The first was that under a majority-minority country, the Republican Party would be left with a smaller white base which could mean shrinking electoral power. The second assumption was that voters of Color would overwhelmingly support Democrats. After the election and reelection of President Obama, Democrats held their own assumptions about their confidence with minority voters through a popular “demography is destiny” doctrine: that as the country shifted in demographics, Democrats would be able to maintain their political dominance long-term.

In hindsight, it’s possible to see why Democrats were viewed as the more successful party with minority voters. In a 2012 Gallup poll, Republicans were overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white, with only 2% of Black voters and 6% of Hispanic voters identifying as such. The point being, both political parties have spent decades making assumptions about dependable voters and winnable candidates. But then, Trump became president in 2016. Not only did he gain traction among minority voters, he openly campaigned on harmful racial rhetoric that sounded exclusive, instead of the inclusivity recommended by the GOP Autopsy. This political irony continued in 2020, where minority voter support for the GOP increased.

Simply put, the autopsy was wrong. In his podcast, Herndon speaks to Kellyanne Conway, former senior adviser to President Trump and the first woman to manage a successful presidential campaign. Whatever your opinion of her, she contends that Trump was successful because he actively pushed away from the assumptions that the Republican Party was on the decline, saying “we don’t tell voters what’s important to them, they tell us.” So, as we look ahead to the upcoming midterm elections, what can both parties learn when reaching out to voters, and how can they create more dynamic campaigns? 

Gerald Hills has had a wide-ranging career in politics at the state and federal level, with leadership roles at the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office and the Michigan Republican Party. He notes that something politicians tend to forget is that “politics is dynamic — not static. California was the bedrock for Republican candidates at one point and now the state is reliably Democrat. Voters act the same way.” 

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been hit with an onslaught of stories detailing how Latino voters are increasingly switching to the Republican Party, not just to vote but to run as candidates. And while many on the Left see this as cause to sound the alarm, Hills isn’t too surprised. “We should never lose sight of the fact that people look at politics in terms of how it impacts them and their families individually. For example, people are paying more attention to the fact that they are paying more at the pump or at the grocery store, and they will bring that frustration with them at the ballot box.”

Because there are so many issues people care about, it’s difficult to pigeonhole voters. It sounds incredibly simple, and yet politicians continue to miss this. It is common for candidates to run on different messages depending on which voting group they are talking to. The problem is that concepts such as the “Latino Vote” or the “Black Vote” never tell the full story and are full of misconceptions. For example, despite the assumption that Latino voters are largely Democrats, Republicans have had a deep history among this fast-growing electorate. Although the Black electorate overwhelmingly votes Democratic in elections, 70% of Black voters identify as moderate or conservative. 

Former Michigan gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed told me that this is especially where Democrats tend to fail: “We have a large coalition, but Democrats tend to campaign a different segment of their playbook to different groups of people instead of building a strong cohesive vision where everyone can see themselves.”

So how can a candidate be successful when reaching out to voters? Again, keep it simple: According to Hills, “Strength is a powerful motivator for a lot of people. This is why Trump stood out to so many people, especially those who didn’t vote before. It was Clinton who said ‘strong and wrong beats weak and right.’” He also pointed to how Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is an example of a candidate who is framing her campaign around strength. She leans into her accomplishments, being in motion and getting things done. Hills also emphasized how important the tool of persuasion is: “In politics, perception is reality.” Building a coalition is messy work, but if you can convince a voter that you care about their interests, that you’ll go to D.C. and fight for them and that you’ll keep the promises you make, you end up being much more successful.

It’s important for politicians to realize that they have to work for every voter they want. Blindly assuming that a certain block of voters has an allegiance to you is not only dangerous, but insulting. The upcoming midterm elections will be the ultimate test for how both of America’s political parties decide to campaign and craft their messaging in the future. 

Elina Morrison is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at elinamo@umich.edu