The Magazine

How Much Worse Can It Get?

Republicans can’t afford to write off African-American voters.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By JAY COST
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When pundits talk about the Republican party’s troubles with the “nonwhite” vote, they usually mean the Latino vote. There are reasons for this. In 2004 George W. Bush won an estimated 44 percent of the Latino vote; in 2012 Mitt Romney won just 27 percent. What’s more, the Latino share of the electorate rose from 8 percent to 10 percent in those eight years, magnifying the impact of the Democrats’ inroads. 

A voter refusing to be taken for granted

A voter refusing to be taken for granted

Newscom

Yet the nonwhite electorate contains another important problem for Republicans, one that has received less comment: the black vote. Analysts may have ignored it because the GOP loses most African Americans anyway. That’s true, but it’s getting worse: The GOP’s margin of defeat among black voters increased in the last two presidential elections. This should worry Republicans even more than the Latino vote for a simple reason: African Americans hold the balance of power in more swing states. 

Already, the damage has been severe. In 2004, John Kerry won about 10 million more black votes than George W. Bush. Then in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama won about 15 million more black votes than John McCain or Mitt Romney. This means not only that the black vote was decisive in Obama’s victories, but his increase alone over Kerry’s performance in 2004 accounted for about 80 percent of his 2012 margin of victory. In other words, if Obama had “merely” done as well with African Americans as Kerry had, his 5-million-vote margin of victory would have fallen to about 700,000. 

What is amazing about this is that black voters were already strongly Democratic to begin with. The Republican party, at best, gets about 11 percent of the black vote in any given year. Obama cut that haul in half. Moreover, Obama increased black turnout from 11 percent of the electorate in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008, which, considering that he won almost every black vote, supplemented his final margin by 2 points. Indeed, the GOP’s performance among blacks these days is so terrible that Mitt Romney won 800,000 fewer black votes than Bush had eight years before.

For conservatives, there are two ways to look at this problem. The optimistic view notes the decline of black support for Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections and concludes that African Americans have not shifted further to the Democrats; they simply backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. This has some merit, but so does the pessimistic take, which draws a lesson from history.

In 1928 Democrat Al Smith was the first Catholic major-party nominee; he lost overwhelmingly to Herbert Hoover, but his presence at the top of the ticket served to mobilize Catholic immigrants, who strongly backed Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. The latter’s New Deal, in particular his labor policies, brought about an alliance between Catholics and the Democratic party that did not crack until 1946 and even then held more or less together until 1972. If the new, and newly Democratic, African-American Obama voters are anything like the Catholics of the 1920s, this will be a lasting problem for the GOP.

What makes the picture all the more troubling for Republicans is the geographic distribution of black voters. Latinos are different: Large portions of the Latino vote are situated in non-swing states, especially California and Texas. The main swing states where Latinos are decisive— Colorado, Florida, and Nevada—together have 44 electoral votes. The black vote is distributed much more effectively for electoral purposes, with large subpopulations in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, for a total of 121 electoral votes.  

Republicans would be smart to hope for the optimistic scenario but plan for the pessimistic one. In other words, the GOP should assume that the Democrats have expanded their margin among African Americans, and Republicans should craft a strategy to win some black voters back.

No doubt, this is a fraught endeavor. Consider the kerfuffle that Paul Ryan created recently by talking about a culture of nonwork in the inner cities. Ryan was exhorting his audience to get involved in charity work, but liberal critics cried racism, to great effect. So hegemonic is the Democratic left’s dominance of black politics that most conservatives take the path of least resistance. They keep their mouths shut, aware as they are that an entire cottage industry within the social sciences is devoted to castigating conservative principles as “coded” calls for the oppression of blacks.

Republicans may no longer have the luxury of remaining silent. Besides, there are opportunities for them among African Americans. The Democratic coalition is a motley assortment of interests, and there are latent conflicts that potentially divide black voters from other Democrats. This might explain why the left is so quick to bark “racism!” anytime a Republican starts talking about the inner cities. Democrats need to win upwards of 70 percent of the urban vote these days, and they cannot suffer Republicans to poach their supporters. 

Yet why is it written in stone that black voters in Harlem should back the same national politicians as the gentry liberals of the Upper East Side? Not so long ago the two neighborhoods’ voting patterns differed as much as their class and social interests. And there remains a divide between them in local politics. Is there really no way for Republicans to take advantage of that, perhaps by promoting economic, cultural, and educational initiatives that the upscale left cannot abide?

Similarly, do not low-income African Americans lose out under the Democrats’ preferred version of immigration reform, which would flood the labor market with low-skilled workers and put strains on already thin public welfare resources? How about the potential conflicts of interest between organized labor and African Americans? The Democratic party is not a monolith, and black interests often come second (or third) when the party is deciding who gets what. Those are viable areas for Republican counteroffensives.

But strategic considerations can only set the stage. There has to be more. African Americans overwhelmingly mistrust the Republican party, and the media reinforce their negative view. Republicans seeking to overcome these challenges once again might look to history. 

There have been three substantial shifts in black public opinion. First, African Americans chose the Republican party, then remained loyal to it, primarily because of Abraham Lincoln’s fight against slavery; next, they started to shift to the Democratic party because Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal began providing them with social welfare benefits; third, they shifted further to the Democratic party because Lyndon Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964 (and Barry Goldwater opposed it).

In each case, we see a politician stick his neck out for African Americans by putting political capital behind a bold initiative that helped the black community. Importantly, none of them was a perfect advocate for black rights. Lincoln had previously supported the return of African Americans to Africa; FDR had worked in the racist Woodrow Wilson administration, refused during his presidency to push for anti-lynching legislation, and was slow to respond to complaints about discrimination in the military during World War II; and LBJ was instrumental in watering down civil rights legislation under Dwight Eisenhower. In the long run, none of these blemishes mattered politically. Each man took a risk to help African Americans in a big way and succeeded, and his party reaped the political benefit for generations.

It is notable that each of these politicians took black political preferences at face value. It is not simply that the three promoted initiatives that were good for African Americans; the initiatives were also what African Americans wanted. The contrast between this approach and Ryan’s comment is illustrative. The warmhearted Ryan meant no harm; he was following in the footsteps of his mentor, Jack Kemp, who similarly shined a light on urban problems. And Ryan’s vicious liberal critics were disingenuous in the extreme. That said, the GOP is not going to win black voters without a conscientious attempt to appeal to them on their own terms. Talking about idleness in the inner cities will not win urban voters to the conservative cause. 

Even in the most optimistic case, the GOP will continue to lose African Americans by large margins. Black voters are much more likely to support liberal initiatives than whites, and Republicans cannot and should not dilute their core governing philosophy to pander to any group. Rather, the goal should be more modest. Republicans should try to win self-identified conservative black voters by roughly the same margins that they win self-identified conservative whites. And they should make their case to moderate African Americans, who today overwhelmingly back Democrats. A diligent focus on the problems that African Americans confront can help Republicans at least rebuild the support they won from blacks before the emergence of Obama.  

Both political parties have long taken African Americans for granted. Democrats know they have the black vote in the bag, so they have little electoral incentive to expend political capital on the black community. Republicans, having found ways to win in the postwar era with as little as 10 percent of the black vote, offer rhetorical support for conservative initiatives like school choice or faith-based charities, but spend their energies elsewhere. 

Obama’s back-to-back electoral victories may have scrambled that long-standing calculus. The GOP, which may no longer be able to rely on its modest share of the black vote, had better start behaving as if the worst-case scenario will come true. The party needs to craft a bold reform agenda for the black community, one that meets the community’s needs as African Americans define them. The party also needs to signal that it is committed to enacting that agenda if elected. Otherwise, the “emerging Democratic majority” that the left has dreamed of for over a quarter-century may yet come true.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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