Saturday, after a couple of hours in the hair salon — always a couple of hours — the 2020 election started taking shape for me. Women. Women of color. Black women.
I listened to the banter, a lively combination of speculation about HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” furloughed federal workers canceling appointments, Women’s March politics, President Trump’s wall, and more. One point of agreement: If the White Walkers can breach the mammoth ice wall across the north of Westeros, then a wall along our southern border is surely a waste of money.
My salon, and thousands like it across the country, is where the 2020 election will be decided.
For Democrats, the quest to win the 2020 primary and general elections flows through the vibrant conversations of black women on a Saturday morning — a time and place of unvarnished truth among women of all classes and life experiences. Ask Hillary Clinton: Women of color voted overwhelmingly for her in 2016, including 69 percent of Latino women and 94 percent of black women in the general election, slightly less than for President Barack Obama in 2012. One big problem, though. Turnout was down among African American voters in key states. To reach the White House, Clinton needed more of these women in Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee.
Conversely, many white women continue to stick with the GOP. President Trump narrowly won white women in 2016 (it was women of color who gave Clinton her significant edge with women overall), while the parties ran about even with them in House elections in 2018. Democrats did manage to peel away more college-educated white women in the 2018 midterms, some fertile ground for 2020 growth. Since the 2016 defeat, it has been the strength of the black women’s vote that has driven victories in statewide and down-ballot races for Democrats — including the much-celebrated record number of diverse women in the new Congress.
Why are these facts so important for a crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary field? Simple — the numbers clearly show that the real juice for Democrats rests with women of color. No candidate can ignore black women in the primary season and still hope to engage them after winning the party nomination — that won’t fly. Black women are the most reliable base of the Democratic Party. To win this base in the primary, and then fully mobilize it in a general election, the candidates will need to listen to the women in the hair salons.
In 2020, some may write off identity politics, but for many women/women of color/black women, identity is politics.
When black women think of the wage gap, they know that they make 63 cents for every dollar compared with their white male counterparts. (For Latino women, it’s 54 cents; for white women, it’s 79 cents.)
When black women consider their health care, they experience that their sisters and mothers die of breast and cervical cancer, heart disease and diabetes at greater rates than white women and that their fertility is impacted disproportionately by uterine fibroids, premature delivery and inadequate access to reproductive care.
When black women look at their economic prospects, they know they stare down over $10,000 more in college debt than white men do — overall, women hold about $400 billion more in college debt than men. In overall wealth, too, black women lag significantly behind. How can you have security when you don’t have income and savings?
These are the politics of a black woman’s identity. Already, Democratic candidates entering the presidential race have acknowledged the importance of women — women of color — black women — in their pathways to victory. With this week’s entry of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), some candidates may be tempted to write off their chances of capturing the votes of black women. That would be a mistake. These voters are listening. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s announcement framed her economic-populist message to appeal to women, pointing to an economy that has failed women of color. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) made a head-on pitch to women as a mom with a record of fighting for gender equality. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) may soon join the field.
But this work cannot be left to this fine array of female candidates — in 2020, this is men’s work, too. After Iowa and New Hampshire, the road to success in the South goes through the votes of black women. But remember: Women/women of color/black women are not a monolith — they are individuals, and they want to be fought for. Every candidate must wage that battle.
I don’t pretend to know who will win the Democratic nomination. But I do know that if he or she ultimately makes it to the White House, it’s going to be on the strength and support of black women. The time to start reaching out to them is now.
The writer, a member (D-Md.) of the U.S. House of Representatives from 2008 to 2017, is a Post contributing columnist.