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.