Cornell Belcher is the president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies, a polling firm instrumental in twice electing President Obama to the White House. Mr. Belcher was on the polling teams for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, having done work for the DCCC, DSCC, and Emily’s List, and he was the first minority person to serve as pollster for the DNC.
Harvard Political Review: You’ve served in a number of different roles in Washington, but you’re first and foremost a pollster. How did you become involved in politics, and specifically polling, in the first place?
Cornell Belcher: I got my start in polling the first time I read about Du Bois’ work in Philadelphia—Du Bois’ understanding of the social sciences as a way to bring about change and understanding to communities that have often been marginalized. As a child of the South, I’ve long been fascinated by what makes people behave the way they behave politically. This led me to polling, where my interest in politics crossed with my interest in social sciences and behavior….
David Plouffe and Robert Gibbs, who became Obama’s first press secretary and with whom I worked at the DSCC, were putting together the campaign for Senator Obama’s campaign. I remember getting a call from Gibbs, and he asked me, “Are you with anybody?” And I responded, “No,” and he said “Ok, good.” I knew this meant he wanted me as a part of the team, and I jumped at this opportunity, because Obama was every reason why I wanted to get involved in politics. He was an agent of change, someone who was breaking a barrier, and someone who was talking about building a movement and brining new people into the process. This was a culmination of so many reasons why I came to Washington to get involved in politics in the first place.
HPR: You noted that your main motivation for going into politics was to foster change—how do you see polling as a vehicle to do that?
CB: Polling helps bring in an understanding of values and issues. Polling allows you to shine a light on these things. For example, a couple months ago, my company [Brilliant Corners] put up some research on Black Lives Matter that showed fighting racism is a really big deal for younger minorities right now. That picked up some traction and press in which reporters were asking me about it. Putting these issues in the public space and shining some light on these issues is very important for me. Helping to solve problems through research, like solving the problem of getting a Black man with a Muslim-sounding name who hasn’t had a great deal of experience elected president. That’s solving a problem. That’s how I see polling and research as tools to bring about change.
HPR: A lot of Brilliant Corner’s work has dealt with the intersections of race and voting. What do you see happening in the future as a result of what you have called the bifurcation of the vote? How will this play out in the electorate in the next few elections?
CB: I think it is getting worse because of a lot of different variables, but one of the most important is the lack of leadership in that space on the right. I say this because as the country grows more diverse and we near that tipping point where certain segments of the country change over to plurality, majority-minority, you see greater conflict. One group feels like they’re losing out to another group, as opposed to us being Americans as a whole. In absence of a different kind of leadership, they will naturally strike out and fight that change. When you look at the increasing efforts to disenfranchise segments of electorate and trample over our democratic values in order to sustain some perception of privilege and power—I think that is tragic and it is the death of our democracy unless we change our trajectory. As opposed to leaders stepping into that void and calming it, you have leaders right now who are playing on that vision and leading screams of “Take back our country!” in a way that is not healing. They’re false prophets; they’re promising something they cannot deliver.
HPR: Based on your experience as pollster for the DNC under Howard Dean, how do you think the Democratic Party has changed since his chairmanship?
CB: The party has been sapped of resources in a way because of the rise of Super Pacs. It isn’t helpful when you have tremendous sums of money going to outside organizations that are spending most of their resources on television as opposed to building infrastructures in the areas where we need to touch people, such as making investments in neighbor-to-neighbor programs.
HPR: Having been involved in the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012, do you have any thoughts on the Democratic side of the race in 2016? What is the Clinton campaign doing well or poorly?
CB: I don’t think I’m in a position to say what the Clinton campaign is doing poorly; only time will tell that. I can say that right now she has handled the Black Lives Matter issue in a way that has been far better than anyone else, which, in the nomination battle, will help her lock in minority voters in a way that will make her hard to beat once the contest moves beyond New Hampshire and Iowa.
HPR: Are there any moments that stick out to you from either of the Obama campaigns or any other roles in which you have served?
CB: Coming out of New Hampshire [in 2008], Clinton had a big upset victory. So we knew that we needed to win South Carolina and win it solidly … Obama wasn’t originally winning Black voters; he was running way behind with them everywhere. We knew that if Hillary could compete for the minority vote in a real way moving forward, Obama’s nomination would be in doubt. What we were able to put together in South Carolina was important moving forward because we won African American voters decisively, and we really took away Hillary’s ability to compete for the Black vote….
When we won South Carolina, that night I was standing just off the side of the stage, when then-Senator Obama and Michelle Obama came out, and I think I hugged [David] Axelrod. There was a hush about the auditorium. Mind you, we were literally right around the corner from the state capitol, where the confederate flag was still flying at that time very high and proud. Up in the stands there was a row of young kids, both white and Black, who had been a big part of delivering this resounding victory for Barack Obama. In the heart of the old Confederacy, these kids started chanting, “Race doesn’t matter!” They started slow, but they boiled up bigger and bigger. “Race doesn’t matter!”
Politics in Washington has made me cynical, but I literally choked up. They weren’t prompted by anybody. They were trying to scream into existence the America that they wanted. It was such a reassuring moment of our goodness. That memory still chokes me up a little. That is a moment that sticks out for me and makes me remember that this can be good. There is good in this.
Image Source: Harvard Institute of Politics