Remember when the so-called “soccer moms” were all the rage, a nod to the voting power of white, suburban women?
Politicians fell all over themselves, and sometimes stumbled badly, to court the overly generalized cohort. Gaffs included far too many references to the minivans that they didn’t all drive and offensive depictions of cul-de-sac dwellers too harried to juggle a professional career and motherhood.
That was 1996. And since then, white middle-class female voters have been credited with helping to send Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump into the White House.
They’ll play a role in 2020. But these ladies are also slowly being replaced — not in a crudely discriminatory way but rather through the reality of demographics.
Since 2000, the number of citizen voting-age non-Hispanic white women has increased by 8 percent. Meanwhile, the number of citizen voting-age women of color has grown by 59 percent. That’s 13.5 million more potential African American, Latino, Asian, Native American and biracial voters, according to the Center for American Progress, which studied self-reported data by gender, race and ethnicity.
That’s an emerging voting bloc. Do you think the legions of political gurus, spin consultants and wannabe candidates are more apt to get it right with these women? I fear not. And that’s a worrisome premise for Democrats hoping to limit President Trump to one administration.
“Women of color, with their distinct histories, experiences and collective power, are not monolithic,” the center report cautioned. “They have distinct interracial and intra-racial perspectives that lawmakers must recognize and respect.”
Underline the last word and repeat it: respect. Because that’s where all of this positive potential could be upended.
The leading Democratic candidates at this point are not the politicians who demonstrate the most respect for women of color.
Granted, it’s still early. But right now, neither Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren nor Pete Buttigieg consistently emote a deep, authentic connection with the joys and struggles of women of color. They can speak statistically about such things, reciting data points to measure maternal health outcomes, home ownership rates and wages. But it’s not the same.
And one doesn’t have to be a person of color to get it right. You do have to listen long and hard and, devoid of assumptions, spend a lot of time with people unlike yourself.
Asian, African American, Latino and Native American women often possess a heightened sense of emotional intelligence about such things. We have to. It’s a survival tactic honed from being the minority in many situations.
We’re used to reading a room. We know what’s it’s like to be the only person of color there, deftly listening as people carefully choose words because they note your presence, often dancing around what they fear might be misconstrued as prejudiced.
It can be exhausting. And different women bear it differently.
But imagine being the less visible person of color — say, a Latina who has married and no longer carries a surname like Lopez, Gonzalez or Sanchez.
Oh, the things people say.
And, yes, people know when politicians are patronizing by throwing in a little Spanish (or other non-English languages) or some slang to try and create a connection with a community that they haven’t worked to gain. (Rural white voters can relate here.)
Which candidates speak authentically to women of color?
Kamala Harris passionately commanded such a moment during the November Democratic debate. Her point was how Democrats have taken black women’s votes for granted. It wasn’t just what she said. But how she said it.
And 2020 could be the year when those black female voters decree that enough is enough.
Maybe not enough to vote Republican. But they could stay home on election day.
And please, let’s not give this emerging demographic of women a cutesy moniker. Respect the legacy of the so-called soccer moms, who were oversimplified, stereotyped and dismissed. Courting women of color doesn’t mean corralling them into one tidy narrative.
But it’s not a stretch to contend that the future of the nation just might depend upon Democrats getting this right.
Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.