After a well-received debate performance last week, Herman Cain surprised everybody by finishing atop the Florida straw poll. This week, he's finally seeing traction in the polls, and now serious people are starting to take him seriously. It's far past time for us to take a closer look at Cain, who appears to be making a credible bid for top-tier status.

Earlier this week, Herman Cain asserted that he could win about a third of the black vote. Is this possible? And if so, what would it mean, for Republicans as well as African Americans?

The consequences of just a ten-point swing among African Americans would be enormous for the Grand Old Party. If George W. Bush had won 20 percent of the black vote in 2000 and 2004, he would have beaten Al Gore by almost a point and a half (instead of losing by half a point) and defeated John Kerry by 4 points (instead of his two-point victory). If McCain had done this well among African Americans, Obama’s 7-point victory would have been cut almost in half.

The problem is that Republican political leaders don’t really care very much about this. Since the Democratic party swung wildly to the left in the 1960s, the GOP establishment has figured out that it can win national majorities almost entirely with the white vote. Same with Senate majorities and, thanks to the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act (which mandated the creation of minority-majority districts), House majorities. Thus, the Republican party leadership does not make a serious play for the black vote, which is a big reason why states like Illinois and New York are no longer up for grabs.

The absence of GOP competition for the black vote has allowed the left wing to demagogue the Republican party in the most negative of terms within the black community, without much of a GOP response. Take for instance that comment from Melissa Harris-Perry that I discussed Wednesday, about how the Republican party is not the “party of civil rights.” It is asserted far and wide that the GOP represents little more than the crudest, most reflexive form of Goldwaterism. It’s just not true, so where is the Republican pushback? If Democrats tried to slander the GOP among, say, Catholic voters, you'd see the Republican establishment move heaven and earth to counter such a scurrilous charge. But because the black vote is not up for grabs, this kind of blatant falsehood ends up going unchallenged.

This is terrible for grassroots conservatism, and here it’s worth keeping in mind that the goals of the political establishment are essentially different than the base: the establishment wants to win electoral offices; the base wants to implement a broad vision of a more perfect union. Most of the time, these two interests are compatible, but not in this case. It’s very hard to do much of anything when you can’t win much more than 51 percent of the vote – which has basically been the GOP ceiling for the presidency and Congress for the last 20 years.

And Cain is right – there is potential for Republicans among African Americans, at least in theory. White conservatives overwhelmingly vote Republican, but black conservatives do not. According to the American National Elections Study, John Kerry won about 90 percent of the black conservative vote. White moderates usually split their votes between the two parties, according to the study, but black moderates do not. Again, Kerry won better than 90 percent. By granting left wing demagogues complete freedom to mischaracterize conservative Republicanism to the black community, the party consistently loses black conservatives and moderates who might otherwise consider the GOP. This, in turn, helps prevent the big policy breakthroughs the GOP hasn't seen for a generation.

I'd also say that in many respects this state of affairs is bad for African Americans, because it limits the power of the black vote itself. As political scientist E. E. Schattschneider wrote: “the political parties created democracy and…modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties. As a matter of fact, the condition of the parties is the best possible evidence of the nature of any regime.” Unfortunately, African Americans do not enjoy robust two party competition for their votes, and accordingly their interests are often poorly served, as the only way they can leverage their numbers is through the Democratic party, and more particularly the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Because the CBC made the decision some time ago to unite with the liberal-labor alliance, a lot of black interests are just plain overlooked.

For instance, school choice would essentially be a transfer of resources and power directly to poor black families, who would be major beneficiaries of such a program. However, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers would be losers in the deal, so it is a non-starter on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Additionally, liberal immigration policies do not hurt educated whites, whose skills basically price them out of competition with most immigrants. If anything, upper income whites are helped because a glut of workers enables companies to keep costs, and therefore prices, down. Instead, African American workers – who often find themselves in competition with immigrants – would be harmed. But the Democratic party as a whole would be helped thanks to a flood of new immigrant voters, so it unabashedly advocates loose policies.

And then of course there are the cultural issues, above all abortion. Consider this revealing comment from former representative Louis Stokes, who represented a majority black district in Cleveland for thirty years (taken from Going Home by Richard F. Fenno):

On abortion, I can take the most extreme position and my (black) constituents won’t say a thing. I know that there are black people in the churches who disagree with me on late-term abortion. But they don’t criticize me, because they know that I’m helping them on everything else.

White pro-lifers do not have to make such compromises, because the two parties actively compete for their support. If a Republican in South Dakota earned a 5/100 score from the National Right to Life Committee (which is what Stokes earned in the 105th Congress), you can bet your bottom dollar that he’d get a stiff challenge from a pro-life Democrat. And this just goes to show that white people take for granted the idea that their representatives will reflect the majority opinion of their community, but abortion is one very good example of how African Americans do not enjoy that luxury in all cases.

And the reason? There is no Republican competition. All black political battles are fought exclusively in the Democratic party, which means they are regularly not resolved at the ballot box – but in closed door sessions of the local party committee or informal alliances in Congress. That's where black interests often have to take a back-seat to the interests of labor, environmentalists, immigration advocates, and so on -- even among those elected to represent African Americans! If, on the other hand, black members of Congress were at least a little concerned about a Republican challenge, there is no way they would ever thinkabout stepping out of line with their constituents on abortion. And I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’d see plenty more supporters for school choice in Congress.

A final thought. The period of robust progress on civil rights lasted from about 1945 to 1965, and this occurred for two big reasons. First and most important was the civil rights movement, which put political pressure on an inert establishment. But the second and often overlooked reason is that the two parties were finally competing for the black vote, for the first time ever. Southern Democrats had totally suppressed the Southern black vote from about 1890 forwards, but African Americans began migrating to the North in large numbers around the turn of the century, so that the first Northern African American member of Congress, Oscar De Priest (a Republican), was elected from the South Side of Chicago in 1928. FDR won a majority of Northern black voters in 1936; this woke up the Republican party – which had long taken African Americans for granted – and finally pushed it forward on civil rights. The GOP platform in 1944 was much more liberal on civil rights than the Democratic platform, and GOP nominees for most of this period (Thomas Dewey in '44 and '48, Dwight Eisenhower in '52 and '56, and Richard Nixon in '60) were relatively friendly to black interests, and Democrats eventually responded by liberalizing as well. This helped set the stage for the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, both of which received broad bipartisan support. In other words, competition for votes contributed to big policy breakthroughs.

Now, Herman Cain would not be able to change any of this overnight. And maybe not at all -- it would take a great deal of political capital, a deft touch, and a little bit of luck. But the point is this: a Republican candidate for national office, who took competing for the black vote seriously, might help revive Republicanism in the black community. The process could be similar to the kind of top-down advancement the GOP enjoyed in the South after World War II -- when Dwight Eisenhower, the Texas-born national hero who beat the Nazis, convinced Dixie to give the Republican party a second look. If Herman Cain could do that for the GOP with African Americans, there would be a real potential not only for the party to do better nationwide, but for African Americans to leverage their voting strength more effectively.

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