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What ‘The Squad’ Tells Us About Progressives’ Ability To Win Voters Of Color

Back in 2018, a quartet of Democratic women — known commonly as “The Squad” — broke barriers on their way to Congress: They were young women of color with no prior congressional experience who, in some cases, bested a white incumbent to represent their now racially diversifying districts. They were heralded as the “future of the Democratic Party,” and, for the progressive movement, which had long struggled to make inroads with nonwhite voters, they offered a potential path forward: These four women, and others like them, would motivate people of color to vote for left-leaning candidates to help usher in a seismic shift in electoral politics.

But then the 2020 election happened. The Squad did grow by two members, but progressives failed to win the ultimate prize, the Democratic nomination for president, in large part because voters of color threw their support behind now-President Biden. In addition, many Democrats argued after the 2020 general election that progressive messaging might have cost Democrats seats in the House that year. And while a handful of nonwhite progressive candidates have won important elections this year, 2021 also contained a number of high-profile setbacks for the movement. Not only did Eric Adams, a Black moderate, handily defeat a number of progressives in the Democratic primary for New York City mayor, but a handful of other progressives of color lost their races to more moderate politicians of color, too. 

As a result, the buzz over the Squad’s initial wins in 2018 has largely been replaced by a narrative that progressives struggle with people of color, and that Black voters especially prefer more moderate candidates. But the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

We looked back at the Squad’s initial primary wins, and found that they’ve often won sizable blocs of nonwhite voters, especially when they have had strong ties to those communities (or at least stronger than their opponent). But at the same time, they haven’t necessarily performed well with all voters of color in their district. In fact, our analysis found that — despite each member’s very different path of Congress — each Squad member’s wins required a multiracial coalition of both white and nonwhite voters. We only found one instance without a clear racial pattern. But even if there is no surefire strategy for progressives to win voters of color, the Squad’s primaries also push back against the idea that progressives consistently struggle with these voters.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The first member of the Squad — and arguably still the most famous — is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Few thought the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District on June 26, 2018, would be competitive, but Ocasio-Cortez wound up pulling off an upset, defeating then-Rep. Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, 57 percent to 43 percent. 

In seeking to explain the result, commentators at the time pointed to the district’s changing demographics: Ocasio-Cortez, like 47 percent of the 14th District’s voting-age population, is Hispanic, while Crowley, like only 23 percent of the district’s VAP, is non-Hispanic white.1 However, this explanation doesn’t tell the whole story as Ocasio-Cortez performed well in both white and Hispanic corners of the district. According to Sean McElwee, the co-founder and executive director of Data for Progress, Ocasio-Cortez “benefited from a situation where very highly engaged liberal people were the big constituency that were turning out.”

In fact, Ocasio-Cortez did best in the whiter, more gentrified areas of the 14th District — like the Queens neighborhoods of Astoria, Sunnyside and Woodside. She defeated Crowley 64 percent to 36 percent in precincts with a white VAP of at least 60 percent. She also won heavily (70+ percent) Hispanic precincts, 56 percent to 44 percent. “She had liberals, particularly liberal whites and young whites, and Hispanic voters and that was her successful coalition,” McElwee said. But that isn’t to say that Ocasio-Cortez was able to appeal to all voters of color. The data suggests, and McElwee agreed, that Ocasio-Cortez performed less well with Black voters. Crowley actually won the district’s two Black-majority precincts by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin.

Rashida Tlaib

A few weeks after Ocasio-Cortez, the second member of the Squad eked out a win in her primary. On Aug. 7, 2018, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib edged out Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, another woman of color, in the regularly scheduled Democratic primary for Michigan’s open 13th District, 31 percent to 30 percent.2 

This was a close, crowded primary — four other candidates were in the running — but to an even greater extent than Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib won thanks to her strength in precincts with large white populations. She received 42 percent of the vote in the district’s 34 precincts with white VAPs greater than 80 percent. However, this doesn’t show a complete picture: 13 of those precincts were in Dearborn Heights, which has a significant Arab American population, and the U.S. Census Bureau considers Arab Americans to be white. (Tlaib herself is Arab American.) Tlaib won 69 percent of the vote in these 13 precincts versus 26 percent of the vote in the other 21 heavily white precincts, so it’s likely that much of Tlaib’s apparent strength with white voters is in fact due to her base of support in the Arab American community.

Tlaib also did not do particularly well in Black neighborhoods; she received 24 percent in precincts with Black VAPs greater than 80 percent. But that probably had more to do with Jones’s deep roots in Detroit’s Black community than Black voters explicitly rejecting Tlaib. Having served on the city council since 2006, Jones had fairly high name recognition in the city, and she won 41 percent in those 80+ percent Black precincts (almost all of which are in Detroit).

Indeed, given the racial composition of the 13th District’s VAP — 53 percent Black, 35 percent white — Tlaib would have likely lost if the Black vote had not been split among Jones and other candidates. “Rashida did get some support among African Americans, but it wasn’t the lion’s share of her vote,” said Tim Bledsoe, a professor of political science at Wayne State University and former Michigan state legislator. Instead, Bledsoe said, Tlaib won thanks to her strong fundraising, which helped her air broadcast TV ads when no other candidates did, and her appeal to younger, more diverse voters. “There was a more progressive element to Rashida’s campaign,” said Bledsoe. “Brenda is certainly no conservative, but Rashida was talking in a more aggressive way about the progressive agenda and I think that helped mobilize young people.” 

Ilhan Omar

The Squad gained its third member on Aug. 14, 2018, when then-state Rep. Ilhan Omar won the Democratic primary for Minnesota’s open 5th Congressional District with 48 percent of the vote. A big reason for Omar’s success was that, as the first Somali-American state legislator in the U.S., she was already somewhat of a household name, both in the 5th District and around the country. Not only did she repeatedly speak out against then-President Trump, but a year prior to her 2018 congressional election, she was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. She was also featured in a music video for Maroon 5, appeared on The Daily Show and was the subject of a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival

That national profile proved hard for any of her opponents to cut through. “All of [Omar’s primary opponents] had a hard time making the case against voting for someone who was already an international figure. It was hard to penetrate and no one quite landed on the right message,” said Javier Morillo, a political strategist who works in Democratic politics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given her name recognition, Omar performed well in all corners of the 5th District. In fact, there was no correlation between a precinct’s racial composition and its level of support for Omar. In precincts whose Black VAPs exceeded 40 percent, Omar received 47 percent of the vote. In precincts where the non-Hispanic white VAP was at least 80 percent, she received 44 percent. Her best precincts spanned Minneapolis’s white-majority University neighborhood, heavily Somali Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and diverse Powderhorn neighborhood.

Omar was also the only member of the Squad to face a competitive primary in 2020. Antone Melton-Meaux, a moderate attorney, mounted a bid against her, and even though both Melton-Meaux and Omar are Black, that race actually broke down much more closely along racial lines. 

Perhaps contrary to expectations, though, it was the progressive candidate who did better in Black neighborhoods. Omar won the primary overall, 58 percent to 39 percent, but she lost precincts with the highest white VAPs; Melton-Meaux defeated her 55 percent to 43 percent in parts of the district with white VAPs of at least 85 percent. Rather, Omar prevailed thanks to her strong performance in more racially diverse neighborhoods. She did especially well in precincts that were 40 percent Black or more, defeating Melton-Meaux 73 percent to 23 percent.

Why did Omar’s coalition shift between 2018 and 2020? Michael Minta, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, cautioned that it is impossible to say definitively but said that Omar’s support for the protests that rocked the district in the wake of George Floyd’s murder just a few months before the 2020 primary might have turned off moderate white Democrats in places like affluent, suburban Southwest Minneapolis. He also pointed to anti-Israel comments Omar made in 2019 that invoked anti-Semitic tropes as a possible factor. “That was used against her and highlighted in the campaign,” he said. Finally, he noted that media coverage of Omar’s first primary did not focus much on her progressive views, which may have made those moderate voters more willing to vote for her in 2018 than they were in 2020. “​​If she had that reputation she has now … I don’t know how that primary would have played out.”

Ayanna Pressley

Rep. Ayanna Pressley is the fourth original member of the Squad, and she also performed well in all corners of her district, but it was actually Black precincts that gave her, a Black woman, the highest levels of support. 

On Sept. 4, 2018, Pressley defeated then-Rep. Michael Capuano, a white incumbent who had served for nearly 20 years, 59 percent to 41 percent in the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’s 7th District. That 18-point margin is evidence that Pressley held her own everywhere, but she significantly outperformed Capuano, 76 percent to 24 percent, in the district’s 38 majority-Black precincts, mostly located in the Roxbury and Mattapan neighborhoods of Boston.

Why was Pressley so successful in those areas? She had represented them for nearly nine years on the Boston City Council. And according to Beth Huang, the executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, Pressley’s deep roots in the community went over well with voters of color in general. “She had many validators in communities of color who had known her for a long time,” Huang said. “She also targeted a wider set of voters, including more young people and more people of color in Boston.”

But on top of that, Pressley was successful at expanding her appeal to whiter sections of the district, which ultimately elevated her candidacy even further. Per our analysis, she actually edged out Capuano, 51 percent to 49 percent, in the district’s 28 precincts with VAPs that are at least 70 percent white, reflecting her strength with young progressives in areas like Somerville and Allston. But as Huang made clear, Pressley’s win was years in the making. “She was — and is — a very well-known quantity,” Huang said. “She put in the work for 10 years to build a lot of credibility with many different types of voters.”

Jamaal Bowman

The Squad originally consisted of just the four congresswomen mentioned above, but on June 23, 2020, it got a new member: Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who defeated former Rep. Eliot Engel in the Democratic primary for New York’s 16th District, 55 percent to 41 percent. 

But despite the 16th District abutting Ocasio-Cortez’s, Bowman prevailed by following Pressley’s template of running up the score in heavily nonwhite neighborhoods. Engel, a white man who had represented the 16th District since 1989, won 51 percent to 45 percent in precincts with VAPs that are at least 70 percent white. But Bowman, a Black man, won 59 percent to 34 percent in Hispanic-majority precincts and 63 percent to 34 percent in Black-majority precincts.

Bowman didn’t have Pressley’s advantage of already being an elected official in the district, but according to McElwee (who advised Bowman during his campaign), he still had “real ties to civic and other institutions in the Black communities.” As a former school principal, McElwee said, Bowman was able to use his ties to the voters — particularly Black and Hispanic voters — to “upset the normal advantages that incumbents would otherwise have.”

Another thing that likely helped Bowman’s candidacy was a gaffe Engel made after Floyd’s murder and subsequent racial-justice protests, where he essentially said that he only sought press attention on the issue because of his upcoming primary race. Engel’s comment that “if I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care” may have signaled to Black voters especially that he didn’t share their community’s concerns over police brutality.

Cori Bush

Finally, the newest member of the Squad, Rep. Cori Bush, punched her ticket to Congress on Aug. 4, 2020, when she narrowly defeated then-Rep. Lacy Clay, 49 percent to 46 percent, in the Democratic primary for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District.

Bush’s path to victory was unusual among Squad members in that she actually lost the parts of her district with the highest concentration of voters who share her racial identity. Bush, who is Black, lost the district’s Black-majority precincts 54 percent to 43 percent. But there is an easy explanation for this: The Clay family had been an institution in St. Louis’s Black community for over 50 years. Clay’s father represented the district for 32 years, and the younger Clay had served the area in either the state legislature or Congress continuously since 1983.

In fact, one of the big reasons for the closeness of this race was Clay’s existing ties to older Black voters. According to Jeff Smith, a former Democratic state senator who represented a significant portion of the 1st District, Bush struggled a bit when it came to appealing to these voters since they had become accustomed to supporting the Clay name.

That said, it’s not like Bush didn’t attract any Black support: Her 43 percent performance in Black-majority precincts is actually pretty impressive considering the strength of her opponent. Indeed, Smith said, Bush had strong ties to the Black activist community who wanted to elect a more progressive representative following the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which is part of the 1st District. “Bush’s district is really the epicenter for the modern civil rights racial justice movement post-Ferguson, so that nurtured a cadre of young activists that powered her campaign,” Smith said.

Where Bush really excelled, though, was in whiter parts of Missouri’s 1st District. In white-majority precincts, she defeated Clay 54 percent to 38 percent, and she turned in some of her strongest performances in the gentrified neighborhoods of St. Louis like those around Tower Grove Park. And it’s possible the Clay name might have also worked in Bush’s favor in conservative, white enclaves of the city. Smith suggested that some white voters might have voted for Bush as a protest vote against the Clay name. “A longstanding distrust of the Clay machine in some of those places probably helped her even though, ideologically, those wards are closer to him than her.” But Bush’s real base in this primary was white progressives, Smith said. 

In sum, the Squad members’ coalitions have been all over the map. While some members (Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Bush) did better in whiter precincts, others (Pressley and Bowman) did better in predominantly nonwhite areas. And in one case (Omar) there was no obvious pattern (at least in her initial election). 

Even with these differences, though, it’s clear that voters of color aren’t an automatic vote for the establishment-aligned candidate (as Capuano, Engel and Melton-Meaux can attest). Instead, in all the Squad’s primaries, it seems that voters of color opted for the candidate who had a deeper connection to their respective communities. And that shouldn’t be surprising. It makes a lot of sense, actually: Voters vote for the representative who they feel best represents them.

Aaron Bycoffe contributed research. Art direction by Emily Scherer. Copy editing by Curtis Yee. Photo research by Jeremy Elvas. Story editing by Sarah Frostenson.

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