Andra Gillespie Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference


Headshot of Andra Gillespie 1x1  @AndraGillespie

Areas of Expertise

  • Elections
  • Political participation
  • Political mobilization and race
  • Political leadership of the post-civil rights generation
  • Inter-minority group competition
  • Evangelical politics

Overview

Andra Gillespie, PhD, associate professor of political science, specializes in political mobilization and race as well as competition among minority groups. Her current research focuses on the political leadership of the post–civil rights generation. A frequent commentator for the news media, her experience as a pollster and consultant has helped shape her research into what works in minority politics today—and what doesn’t—as new leadership emerges. She also studies political participation, inter-minority group competition and evangelical politics in the US.

Gillespie’s latest book, Race and the Obama Administration (2019), analyzes Barack Obama’s performance on symbolic issues of importance to African Americans and compares his performance on racial and substantive issues to other recent presidents. She also is the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America (2013) and editor of Whose Black Politics? Cases in Post-Racial Black Leadership (2009). 



Commentary

Ninth Democratic Debate (Feb. 19, 2020)

First things first: this debate was super lively. I enjoyed watching it!

Michael Bloomberg made some mistakes in his first showing. His response to the question about stop-and-frisk and non-disclosure agreements left much to be desired. That said, I’m not sure how much damage those responses will do for him.

There may be some voters who will still support Bloomberg despite his racist and sexist comments because they truly believe he’s the only one who can beat Donald Trump. This could have long term consequences for a general election matchup.

Imagine a fall contest between Trump and Bloomberg. Trump would likely use Bloomberg’s foibles to inoculate himself from any critique of his character—even the critiques that don’t directly relate to racism or sexism.

What’s more, Republicans could legitimately charge Democrats with sacrificing principle for electoral expediency if they ignore the problems of Bloomberg’s candidacy—even if Bloomberg can legitimately make the argument that he can get better results.

All of that said, I’m not sure we can count Bloomberg out yet as a candidate, for reasons I’ll explain in a second. He sustained body blows, but I have to wait to see if his poll numbers move at all. They might not. One reason Bloomberg’s poll numbers might not move is because the other moderates only did okay.

The winner of the latest Democratic debate is Elizabeth Warren. She launched the best attacks against Bloomberg, was sufficiently feisty, and also very generous in coming to the aid of Amy Klobuchar.

Warren’s performance may solidify a top three showing for her in the Nevada caucus. However, she will have a hard time beating Bernie Sanders with progressives. Her hope is to gain ideologically unconstrained moderates concerned with the liabilities of the moderate candidates.

I want to come back to why I’m not sure Bloomberg’s problematic Democratic debate performance dooms in candidacy. We have to consider that not all people are turned off by his wealth or the fact that he’s using it to run for office. They see it as a masterful play of the game.

I’ll end by reiterating what I said earlier during the inequality discussions. Dems must be careful about how they critique the rich. Fairness may be persuasive, but many still aspire to be Bloomberg or Trump and don’t resent them throwing money around. Dems have to reach those people.

Seventh Democratic Debate (Jan. 14, 2020)

Foreign policy played a bigger role in this debate than previous debates, no doubt because of the news cycle. The topic probably led to the more sober tone overall. Each candidate put their own spin on appearing presidential but likely only appealed to their ideological bases.

The biggest fireworks took place in the exchange between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders over his comments about women candidates. It was uncomfortable to watch. It also revealed another Sanders’ blind spot. I’m not surprised that he might not remember a hurtful “throwaway” comment, but those hurt by those comments tend to remember them vividly. What struck me about Sanders’ reaction was his refusal to listen actively during the exchange. For him to dismiss Warren’s accusation so quickly is itself a hallmark of privilege.

This debate also demonstrated the tradeoffs of question coverage. This debate, unlike others, covered issues like childcare, but neglected immigration.

Because of his terrible performance in the first democratic debate, I’m always interested in Joe Biden’s performance. He’s gotten better over time. He’s never going to be perfect, but he’s improved greatly.

I’m still pondering Amy Klobuchar’s performance. She has the most to lose (momentum-wise) from having to serve on the impeachment jury, so she had to be aggressive tonight. We’ll see if it pays off.

I was also a little surprised to see Warren’s direct appeal to identity in her close. In part because she left a lot of folks out (though she included many), it seemed like pandering. I’m not sure it was effective.

While Tom Steyer didn’t do badly in the debate, he was the most out of place on that stage. He earned a debate spot because of a surge in recent state polls. I’ll be curious to see more data to see if Steyer’s poll results are outliers or capturing a real surge. I’ve always viewed Steyer’s candidacy as a vanity project. It was very poignant to see Steyer on stage the day after Cory Booker had to drop out. I empathize with the frustration of seeing seasoned politicians of color end their campaigns while rich guys get to stay in.

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) can’t guarantee that POC candidates make every debate or that they surge to the top tier of each election. Some candidacies fail to catch fire for their own reasons. But the DNC can ensure qualifying survey samples are large enough to have meaningful POC subsamples.

I’ll end on this. Despite the failure of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro to gain traction in this election cycle, they will be back! In the meantime, their absence forces a conversation regarding descriptive representation in the Democratic Party.

End of Cory Booker Presidential Campaign (Jan. 13, 2020)

The biggest point I want to make is that this defeat is not career ending for him. Booker still has a bright future head of him. It was a large field that made it difficult for many candidates to break through. That explains part of his and other candidates' demise.

The other question, of course, is why black voters didn't flock to him (or Kamala Harris). Part of it is that their race and viability are not the novelties that they were for Barack Obama or Jesse Jackson, who were able to channel stratospheric interest in their campaigns into high levels of support among blacks.

In addition, black voters were making strategic choices about whom to support. It's not a matter of antipathy towards the black candidates. Rather, black voters calculated that other candidates were likely to do better in the primaries and/or better against Trump in a general election, so they decided to support those candidates versus their coethnics. 

Again, I believe Booker will live to fight another day. This is a disappointment, but by no means a failure. 

Fifth Democratic Debate (Nov. 21, 2019)

Many people were surprised by the relative dearth of attention local and state issues played in last night’s Democratic debate.  They weren’t completely absent—the candidates did answer questions about voting rights and abortion—but their discussion demonstrated the nexus between national and local politics.  The national journalists and their presidential candidate debaters were concerned about these local issues because of their connection to larger, national political debates.

The seeming lack of customization, though, disappointed some who wanted to see the candidates and moderators talk more about Georgia, a state that has become increasingly competitive electorally in recent years.  While I understand the disappointment, I would argue that Atlanta was front and center in this debate in an important, symbolic way.

Staging this debate in Atlanta was important because of Atlanta’s regional and demographic importance.  As the crown jewel of the South, Atlanta represented not just itself, but all Southern states with large black Democratic electorates whose votes the candidates need in order to secure the nomination.

Thus, the focus for the candidates was on black voters, not necessarily black voters in Atlanta or black voters in Georgia.  And in particular, the focus was on black women, who make up a disproportionate share of the black vote. 

Black women’s issues were highlighted—positively and negatively—in the debate.  Kamala Harris was very effective when she highlighted how pay inequity affects women of color more acutely or how maternal mortality kills black women.  And of course, Joe Biden’s biggest gaffe was rendering Kamala Harris—a black woman—invisible onstage when he claimed that the only black woman senator had endorsed him.

It’s too early to say what the impact of these moments will be.  The big question will be if black women shift their support as a result of last night.  In particular, will black women supporting Biden view his oversight of Harris as a malapropism or a symptom of his unsuitability for the nomination? 


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