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The Assignment with Audie Cornish

Each week on The Assignment, host Audie Cornish pulls listeners out of their digital echo chambers to hear from the people whose lives intersect with the news cycle. From the sex work economy to the battle over what’s taught in classrooms, no topic is off the table. Listen to The Assignment every Monday and Thursday.

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Can the Biden/Harris Coalition Hold?
The Assignment with Audie Cornish
Dec 5, 2023

The Obama/Biden ticket’s historic victory in 2008 was the result of massive turnout from Black voters, young voters, and college-educated Americans. Audie talks with Ashley Allison, a CNN commentator and former National Coalitions Director for Biden-Harris 2020 campaign, about the challenge Democrats face holding that coalition together.

Call and leave us your Assignments: (202) 854-8802 or email TheAssignment@cnn.com.

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Episode Transcript
Ashley Allison
00:00:00
Right now, what we are seeing is an electorate that is engaging in a way that I think is surprising the political elite.
Audie Cornish
00:00:09
Wait, I actually I'm going to have you say that again in nonpolitical speak.
Ashley Allison
00:00:13
Okay. I don't even know how to do that anymore. I'm just joking. I'm joking. Voters care about more than one thing and they are demanding the people who are asking to represent them, to think about them in a more complex way.
Audie Cornish
00:00:34
'When Democrats have national success, it's because they build broad coalitions. Their big tent is their greatest strength. It's also their greatest weakness. And our guest today knows that as well as anyone. Ashley Allison was National Coalitions Director for the winning Biden/Harris campaign in 2020. Before that, she worked on the winning Obama and then-Vice President Biden reelection in 2012. And so we wanted to know the strategy in 2024 as things are looking a little wobbly for Dems. Ashley Allison, welcome to The Assignment.
Ashley Allison
00:01:06
Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
Audie Cornish
00:01:08
'So in your opinion, how do campaigns approach Black and brown voters? Is it a panic towards the end for turnout? Which is kind of what I see. Is it like - what's the struggle for people who do the actual, what we call 'ground game,' knocking on doors of getting a candidate's and campaign's attention when there's a problem?
Ashley Allison
00:01:35
You know, historically in both parties, when they do outreach to communities of color, it is what we call GOTV, "Get Out the Vote." And that is literally the last four days of the election cycle where you aggressively knock on doors to get people to turn out to vote. That is not a winning strategy. It never really has been. But I do think, particularly on the Democratic side, folks have realized that that's not going to get it done in 2024.
Audie Cornish
00:02:06
Because there is a sense you could just show up at a church. Like if you just talk to the right preacher, they would drive the church ladies, and that was "The Black Vote" sentence caps. So this is like, on the reporter side, this means your editor's like, "I think you should go to the barbershop and see what..." And you just be like, "Oh, my God." But it was a sense that there was some kind of turnkey operation that could happen through extremely traditional channels that actually turned out a very specific voter. Right?
Ashley Allison
00:02:39
It was, you go to community gathering spots. So whether it be the church for older Black voters, whether it be the barbershop, you know, in 2012, we had a barbershop and beauty salon program. In the Latino community, we would sometimes go to community health centers and register folks to vote for young people, college campuses, go register to vote folks on college campuses. But what we know is that voters aren't going to turn out most likely after just one touch. And particularly in 2024 in an environment where you have so much incoming from social media and so many things to get your attention and then to lose your intention with the snap of the finger, the consistency on what you have to engage a voter has changed drastically. And it's not that you can just go. I haven't been to a beauty shop in over 15 years, so you're not going to get me what? I used to go to the braid shop in Harlem when I lived in New York 15 years ago. It's different from how I engage with black hair now. And so the Democratic Party, the political mechanisms in which how we engage people needs to change. I think that's the same thing for young voters in a lot of places where people are engaging and building community is online, right? It's in the gamer community. It's in TikTok. So the approach can't just be for days before and it has to be consistent and creative and, nothing wrong against my grandma's style of politics, but that's just not going to cut it anymore.
Audie Cornish
00:04:08
All right. So now I want to talk about the hand wringing happening right now.
Ashley Allison
00:04:14
Yes.
Audie Cornish
00:04:14
I hear a lot of "Whoa, it looks like black voters are going to turn out the way we thought they might or that they're not as enthusiastic about Biden the way we assumed they would be or that they are interested in Trump," certain segments of the population that are surprising for people. What's the chatter among people who have done this work, the consultant class, about what is happening to Biden right now?
Ashley Allison
00:04:47
There's a lot of different complexities to it. The first is Black voters. Folks are worried about where Black men will be in this election cycle. We have seen from 2016 to 2020 and now 2024, it seems like the Black male voting population is continuing to vote more and more Republican over the last eight years. So that's a grave concern. There is a question about younger Black voters, which I technically, because I'm still under 45, fall into, where if Black voters are your base voter, you need to turn them out in numbers like Obama had at 95% and you lose 20% of Black men in 2024 and you lose maybe 15% of young Black voters under 45. The question is, can Biden win in 24? There's a separate conversation happening about young people and will they be excited enough to show up and vote? And it's not just whether people will show up and vote. It's also the question of will they vote third party? The third thing I'm hearing, which I think is the most problematic and I don't want to actually leave out Latino voters also because Latino voters have traditionally been treated like a monolith and folks not understanding that in Florida, there is a Cuban population that has been a target of myths and disinformation about socialism as compared to the Chicano in Texas, who is a third generation voter who has a different feeling.
Audie Cornish
00:06:21
'Your list is getting long, Ashley. You're breaking down the whole - I thought you'd say there's a problem here-and-there in the coalition. You've worked your way all the way through Hispanic voters.
Ashley Allison
00:06:32
'Because it matters. And I think that if you approach this work as though Black, brown and white, you're going to lose. And I think voters feel sometimes that that is how - I'm not saying this is what is current, but sometimes it feels like that's how people approach it: you're Black, so you're going to vote Democrat. That's not the case anymore. The final thing I will say is, like, in the coalition, what I'm hearing people say is, "Well, don't they know what's at stake? The alternative is Trump." And my statement would be, I think these communities are acutely aware of what is at stake, which is why they are ringing the alarm right now and asking candidates to speak to them directly about what they need to improve the quality of their lives. And that last piece is, I think, what has to happen in the next year for the Biden coalition to shore up some of these numbers to ensure a victory in 2024.
Audie Cornish
00:07:28
'You know, fundamentally, there was this idea that demography is destiny, right? This is something that Republicans used to panic about back in the day, that Democrats had this growing coalition, diverse pool of voters, and that was only increasing and Republicans didn't and needed to work on that. Trump came along and kind of blew that out of the water. How do you think Democrats need to think about this differently? Because I look at a party that they're not going to have a bunch more Obamas, right? Like what followed was a Clinton, the centrist triangulator kind of part wing of the party. And now Biden, who was never the progressive kid on the block. Whatever his legacy is, it's very long, and as you said, it was not being an Obama-like figure. There is still a panic about centrism reaching out to moderate voters, reaching out to white voters. I don't think the lesson from the Obama years has been like, yeah, the coalition. We're going to just keep working on that. There seems to be a little bit of a well, do we have to maybe the progressives talk too much? Like what? You're laughing, but do you know what I mean? Don't you get that? Like, there's kind of like, maybe you all need to settle down and let us moderates take care of things. And I want to know what you think, how people should think about that coalition going forward in a very literal consultant way. Not you're like, I love your messaging because I hear that Obama in you. But as the person who used to knock on doors, what do they need to be doing right now?
Ashley Allison
00:09:12
We are naming things incorrectly in our coalition. People, you know, talk about like, oh, wokeism and all this stuff like the progressive agenda is actually an agenda that is really popular with independents where maybe not everything, but the overwhelming is really popular with independents, with Democrats and even some Republicans. But because of being like demonized as being too left or, you know, again, like, be quiet, you radical people over here who want people's lives to improve. I think we have a naming problem in our party right now that I would really encourage folks to get away from and lean into more the values and what what your policies will do for people's lives.
Audie Cornish
00:09:58
'And so right now, if you go knock on a door and you've got voters who are doubters, who maybe are progressives, who are Black American, who are Asian-American, etc., who are like, you know what? Not that excited. Like what is to you, the dialogue?
Ashley Allison
00:10:14
I would talk about health care, I would talk about reproductive rights. I would talk about protecting our democracy. I would talk about creating more opportunities for jobs. I would talk about climate. What I have seen now, this is the consultant talking. What I have seen in focus groups and in polling is that maybe biodynamics isn't the right term. But when you talk to voters actually about what the Biden administration has done for them, they like it. The difference is getting over how people are feeling and actually having a conversation with folks about what is actually happening. And I think that that is a winning message on the doors, meeting people where they are and say, oh, yeah, you know, the tax child credit that like brought people out of poverty. That was something the Biden administration supported. We couldn't keep it going because of Republicans. But that's that was overwhelmingly popular. Creating access to child care with the care economy. Those are things that when you actually talk to voters that are part of our coalition. They support. And those are things that the administration supports. I'm not saying it's an easy sell right now because we are in a moment where people are not feeling great. But I don't think you can now just say because people aren't feeling great, you can't have those tough conversations. That's why it have to start now. That's to go back to our beginning conversation. That's why if you just go the last four days, that's a failed strategy because you really can't have a real conversation and build a relationship with the voter in four days. You need to start a year out and go into these communities and have the conversation. Be okay if you disagree, but let people know what you are for and what you will continue to fight for.
Audie Cornish
00:11:59
I'm speaking with Ashley Allison, former National Coalitions director for the Biden/Harris 2020 campaign. We'll be back after a break.
Audie Cornish
00:12:11
Welcome back. My guest is Democratic consultant and CNN contributor Ashley Allison. Finish this statement: Barack Obama picked Joe Biden as his running mate because:
Ashley Allison
00:12:22
'He was the elder statesman that made people feel comfortable with-
Audie Cornish
00:12:27
But which people?
Ashley Allison
00:12:29
White people, white older people feel comfortable about Barack Obama being a younger person in politics and being a Black man.
Audie Cornish
00:12:41
Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate because:
Ashley Allison
00:12:46
She was a young and up and coming person in the Democratic Party who represented the most important component of the Democratic base, Black women. She's also extremely capable, but there was a demographic component to it as well.
Audie Cornish
00:13:05
How does that play into the moment we're looking at right now then? Like, Joe Biden's appeal is not the same as Barack Obama's appeal. And Kamala Harris does not serve the role for Biden that Biden served for Obama. I know it sounds like a riddle, but I'm trying to figure out like, who are they for? Like, what is the version of the coalition that works with this combination of people?
Ashley Allison
00:13:31
'So I want to start with the vice president, because she is a history-maker and no one has seen a woman hold either one of these positions, let alone a woman of color. And so I honestly believe that when you are the first people don't know how to engage with you.
Audie Cornish
00:13:50
I hear you messaging because the press around her is very bad.
Ashley Allison
00:13:53
It's bad. But I think the reality is most vice presidents don't have any press because they never pay attention to them because they were white men. And so she is getting a type of attention. I think that is only happening because she is a black woman.
Audie Cornish
00:14:11
Well, I remember people mocking the heck out of Dan Quayle. I actually don't think it's unusual for a vice president to kind of not be looked at so highly. With her, it's directly tied into people's concerns about Biden, his age, and whether or not she'll be stepping into that position and that that's a more visceral thing.
Ashley Allison
00:14:36
The one thing I remember about Dan Quayle is that he couldn't spell potato correctly.
Audie Cornish
00:14:41
See? Kamala at least doesn't have a potato moment.
Ashley Allison
00:14:44
Okay.
Audie Cornish
00:14:45
She's actually getting off better.
Ashley Allison
00:14:48
But think about it. The stories around Joe Biden under Barack Obama's presidency, they were there, but they weren't "is up for the job?" The stories around Dick Cheney. The stories. I mean, Dick Cheney shot somebody. And it wasn't "if he was up for the job." The stories around Mike Pence. The amount of coverage and the type of coverage that the vice president is getting is disproportionate to how other vice presidents have been covered. That being said, the vice president has an ability and we're seeing it actually play out in real time to speak to a really all of America, but particularly to young voters, to women voters, to voters of color.
Audie Cornish
00:15:39
Is she out there enough to make a difference?
Ashley Allison
00:15:42
I think she is in...
Audie Cornish
00:15:42
And does that mean you believe she's not a liability, that she is an asset?
Ashley Allison
00:15:49
I think she is an asset. I think she is not in Washington circles right now because the reality is we're the chattering class that only will impact a certain type of voter. She's going into states, I think she's been to like 38 states recently, talking about abortion, talking about book bans, talking about gun violence. And from what I'm hearing when I when I listen to focus groups and whatnot, when she goes there and she gets that local coverage, it does impact voters and they actually want to see more of her. I don't think playing to the Washington class is what will be successful. And I think that's what her team is doing now, getting her on the road and talking to real voters who actually will decide this thing.
Audie Cornish
00:16:33
There are different ways that this coalition is shifting and changing, in part because I think the media consultants are starting to, as you said, look at the groups with a little more specificity. So, for instance, there is probably a diploma divide, meaning voters leaning more Republican or more Democrat, depending on how much education they've attained that that exists in the Black community and the Hispanic community as well. There's definitely an income and working class divide and that those exist in these other blocs of the coalition as well. But they weren't paid attention to the same way. As you said, if 95% of black voters vote for a candidate, you're kind of like, well, it doesn't matter what money they make or college or anything like that, you're sort of dismissive of it. But I feel like I see those fault lines becoming far more apparent now.
Ashley Allison
00:17:26
Mm hmm. They definitely are. I mean, I think if you look at, to your point, the diploma divide and the income divide, if you have a college degree, you are more likely to be able to move out of the working class and start to contemplate, can I buy a home? Which is really hard right now. Can I pay off my student debt? Can I build generational wealth in a way that my parents and my grandparents weren't able to do, particularly in communities of color? Those are all economic issues, but they might be a different type of economic issue where if you don't have a college diploma and you were thinking, am I going to be able to pay for childcare, am I going to have an increased minimum wage? Will I have health care? Again, all economic issues. Oftentimes people say, well, we'll just talk about the economy in broad strokes, but the way people engage with the economy is very diverse around racial backgrounds, around economic and around geographic backgrounds.
Audie Cornish
00:18:27
So just to give an example, I can think that there's a very pronounced diploma divide within the black community. Of more black women having.
Ashley Allison
00:18:37
Yes.
Audie Cornish
00:18:37
Diplomas, degrees, college degrees. So if I think of it instead as not just Black voters, hmm, there's some Black voters going for Trump. Who could they be? What's going on? And instead, think of it as, hey, maybe there are a lot of men who are working class or without college degrees who are Black, who, like a lot of men who also don't have college degrees, like Trump. Like, then they're not the anomaly that we're making them out to be. If we slice the numbers a little differently.
Ashley Allison
00:19:10
One of the things that we hear the most from Black men in terms of why they are looking at or or have supported Donald Trump is because they believe he provides more economic opportunity. I'm not sure if we can point to the facts to say that Black men's economic status improved under Donald Trump. But there is this feeling that whether it whether he actually has programs or intention to do anything for Black men, that because he talks about it in a certain way, in a way that the Democrats haven't, is why some folks are moving.
Audie Cornish
00:19:47
So you've just given me this sense of like the appeal of Trump to these different groups on different side of the diploma divide. So what does this mean for outreach? Because I think the narrative I hear in the press is, well, gee, there are some Black men who are really put off by Democrats' support of LGBTQ issues, or, gee, there are some Latino voters who may think that Trump's defense of masculinity, you know, against transgender rights is appealing, that Democrats champion Black women and therefore etc., etc..
Ashley Allison
00:20:28
'What I think we're seeing right now, and I hear the conversation with Black men about masculinity and about LGBTQ issues. And it is not that they do not want that community supported. It is this belief that they are not being paid attention to because of another community. And so it is this thought of that there's not enough for everybody and that is a ploy. I think that often - it's like this replacement theory that somebody is going to come in and take yours, and the only way that you can protect yours is to cut somebody from the LGBT community out or cut a Latino out of this conversation.
Audie Cornish
00:21:09
Or to say you're talking too much about X, you shouldn't be talking about that. Yeah.
Ashley Allison
00:21:14
Yes. If you're talking about X, and I'm not X, it means you're not thinking about me. That is the challenge that Joe Biden will have. Because the difference is, in 2020, Joe Biden was the candidate, now he is governing. And so people he was able to make promises in 2020. But now people are saying you could take action because you have the power to do it. And they saw a Donald Trump presidency where he was not afraid to say this, say that and do this. Now, whether or not it was legal was a whole 'nother question. But the Trump administration was very erratic in their behavior and didn't follow the rules. And I think what we are seeing is that some voters that are part of the Democratic coalition want their elected officials to be just as aggressive in pushing for issues and policies that affect them. That's not to say that I don't think that this administration is doing that. But they need to do a better job at communicating what they're actually doing for each community.
Audie Cornish
00:22:18
So here is a theory of the case that we read in The New York Times that "If you're the Biden campaign and you just can't re mobilize the same level of support that you had among young Black and Latino voters, you can still hope to do just well enough among the older white voters who represent Joe Biden's strength to muscle out a narrow win."
Ashley Allison
00:22:41
I think that's a flawed approach to try, and I don't think that's how our democracy should work. I think that...
Audie Cornish
00:22:49
But aren't they actually Joe Biden's like, isn't that his constituency, as you said? That's why he was brought on to the Obama ticket.
Ashley Allison
00:22:57
Yes, and I think you cannot lose Black voters. No candidate has lost Black voters and been able to win. I mean, it is...
Audie Cornish
00:23:08
'And we don't just mean black voters, right? We're now talking about Muslim and Arab-American voters in Detroit who disagree with how Biden is supporting Israel and prosecuting its war against Hamas. If you have a coalition and this is what Republicans always say, right, the Democrats have all these constituencies that they have to please appease, pander to. But is there something to that? Llike that, if his attention is over here, it's not over there, Right? It's hard to support Arab-Americans who believe this war is wrong and still appeal to maybe a strong Jewish woman vote that also is important to you in key states.
Ashley Allison
00:23:49
'It's not just Arabs and Muslims who are now having a concern about the Biden administration. And that's what - when people just put folks in pockets, it is - there are young white people who are - there are young black people, there are older black people who are asking certain questions. And I think when candidates and I don't think the Biden campaign is doing this, but I think when candidates just say, oh, this is just the issue for this constituency, you then just pander to them and you you miss the complexity of the human being.
Ashley Allison
00:24:19
'I also think it's really funny how like, Republicans are like, oh, they got too many constituencies. I'm like, oh, you mean like Americans? They have too many Americans in their coalition, they have too many voters in their coalition. But we can't - you can't dare to dream to have a platform that would actually help Black, brown, young people, queer people, disabled people? We can only have an agenda that is focused on one type of person? And like in Trump's term, rich white males? I mean, I don't think that's the country we want to live in either. So to think that voters are only voting on one issue, which is this, is that this is the thing that I think is different now than ever before. The way people are getting information, the way people are crossing racial and economic lines to have conversation, the way issues are overlapping and people are realizing the complexities of their life, like having to choose between paying their rent or buying groceries. Those are all things that people are saying, Hey, you know what? I don't want to just have to think about one thing now because that's what the media tells me. I actually want to all these issues address is more prevalent now, I think, with the dialogue with voter than I have seen in my political career.
Audie Cornish
00:25:36
So when we talk about outreach and when we talk about meeting these different various voters where they are, I know there are all kinds of campaigns about it but can you give me a sense of like, what is the conversation like? What is it supposed to be like when someone's like, "look, actually, this guy is not Obama. I don't care about this. Joe Biden doesn't care about me or who cares who's in office. My life doesn't change."
Ashley Allison
00:26:04
Mm hmm.
Audie Cornish
00:26:05
What's that like?
Ashley Allison
00:26:07
First I want to say, I hear you, like, things haven't changed drastically under Obama, Trump or Biden in some instances. And so I just want to acknowledge that of folks. I feel like sometimes when we start those conversations, people are so quick to pivot rather than just acknowledging someone's actual experience. The second thing I would say is then, like, okay, then what, what do you want? Like what is happening in your life that you want to have change? And it may it can vary. I mean, it can be like, well, I have to take care of, you know, I'm in a generation now where like, we're having to ask the question of how we take care of our parents. And I don't know what that's going to look like. And as an organizer, we talk about we learn about story of self. And so I'm like, yeah, I know. You know, my mom is getting older, too, and we've been having those conversations about what it looks like, let me tell you... and then you pivot. After you acknowledge the issue, you hear what they actually want, and then you pivot and you hope that your candidate has something that can relate to them.
Audie Cornish
00:27:05
You hope.
Ashley Allison
00:27:08
You do! I mean, you can't always guarantee.
Audie Cornish
00:27:09
You reach into the brochure and hope there is something there.
Ashley Allison
00:27:13
But then you start talking about the care economy. Making sure that caregivers are paid appropriately so they can live a middle class life, but also making sure that we have access to that and talk about there. The Biden administration did this on the care. They had their first Care Month of Action where they talked about. Okay.
Audie Cornish
00:27:43
I can see I can see why you're good at this.
Ashley Allison
00:27:46
Who cares? But this is the thing. I understand people's frustration because I too am frustrated and I am a very privileged person in this world. And sometimes I just want things to move faster and I think we can move faster, but we have to have people in place. We have to continuously engage. I often say voting and engaging in our democracy is like being in a relationship. If you put the time in the relationship thrive, it grows. It progresses. Relationships are not easy. You have to be in constant dialog with one another. If it excuse me, I don't know if I can say this on The Assignment, but if it's a one night stand, you know what? You'll never hear from that person again. So if you vote one time and you think something is going to change, it doesn't. So democracy voting and being an engaged citizen is, you have to be in relationship with it. And when people don't treat you right in their relationship, you get the chance to break up with them. And that is what elections are about. Hold them accountable or break up. But you can't just walk away and expect the relationship to thrive.
Audie Cornish
00:29:04
'I don't want to take this metaphor further because I'm afraid of where it will go. I love it. But what will you be listening for over the next, say, two, three months? On the Democratic side, are you going to be listening for what third party candidates raised their hand? Are you going to be listening for what voter groups capture the media narrative that they become kind of obsessed with how they're doing and how- their enthusiasm? Are you going to be listening for where Kamala Harris is placed, etc.. Give me the consultants like how you're watching the screens.
Ashley Allison
00:29:46
Well, the first thing I'm going to be watching is what happens in a Republican primary. If we assume Trump is going to be the nominee. But a lot can happen between now and February, and I am acutely aware of that. And I will be curious to see how the Democrats message as we go into Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. So that's the first thing I'm watching, because we have to...
Audie Cornish
00:30:12
You're istening for what keywords?
Ashley Allison
00:30:15
'I'm listening to see how they talk about abortion, how they talk about health care, really how they respond to what the Republican candidates are saying, because this is like a test run for the general election for them. The other thing I'm listening for is that we can't ignore what's happening in the Middle East and that this is a issue that has really fractured the Democratic coalition. And so I am curious to see not so much what the campaign does, but how the Biden administration responds as they continue to get concerns from various components, the Arab and Muslim community, the Black community, the young folks. Labor now is weighing in on this. I'm curious to see how that - how they engage with people and have a conversation about where people are to get them to where they want them to be, which is ultimately to support them. Those are the two things that I think will be very determinative going into the beginning of this general election for 2024.
Audie Cornish
00:31:13
Ashley Allison, thank you so much for talking this through with us. I hope to have you back on the show.
Ashley Allison
00:31:18
Thank you.
Audie Cornish
00:31:21
'That's it for today. The assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Now, this episode was produced by Dan Bloom. I want to thank our senior producer, Matt Martinez. Dan Dzula is our technical director and Steve Lickteig is executive producer of CNN Audio. Support to us comes from Haley Thomas, Alex Manasseri, Robert Mathers, John Dianora, Leni Steinhardt, Jamus Andres, Nicole Pesaru, and Lisa Namerow. Special thanks, as always to Katie Hinman. And we're going through our mailbag to find out what you want to cover. So please continue to send us assignments. The phone number is (202) 854-8802. We're going to be answering some of those in an upcoming show. We'll be back with the new episode on Thursday. Thanks for listening. I'm Audie Cornish.