Since Obama’s flip flop on gay marriage earlier this month (he supported it in 1996, before opposing it for 8 years starting in 2004), there has been a lot of talk about whether he will lose support with African Americans in the fall. African American voters, after all, are both a core Democratic constituency and pretty strong opponents of gay marriage. So, will the president pay a price?
To answer this question, we have to understand the nature of the African American vote in this country, since it differs substantially from the way pretty much every other group functions. African Americans are the only demographic group in the nation that votes in virtually uniform fashion for one side over other, come rain or shine. The Republican party is simply not an option, voting numbers suggest, which means that the Democratic party is the only vehicle for their political aspirations.
What this means, in turn, is that when the Democratic party ignores some of their opinions, those opinions simply go unrepresented in the body politic.
This is actually a pretty regular occurrence in Democratic party politics, as I explain in my new book, Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic.
Their leadership class in Congress has basically cut a deal with other factions of the party that goes something like this: In exchange for support on issues that are important to their community, most members of the Congressional Black Caucus will usually vote with the feminists, the unions, and so on, even if those votes cut against their constituents’ interests.
There are exceptions, of course, most notably the revolt of about half the CBC on the 1994 crime bill; nevertheless, on issues like abortion, school choice, and … yes … gay marriage, the CBC votes with the labor-liberal alliance. And their constituents at home do not object.
And so, Obama does not need to worry about the African American vote swinging Republican. That simply will not happen. Because roughly 90 percent of the African American electorate votes Democratic, the president is bound to receive this level of support from them in November, despite the gay marriage flip-flop. That is just the way it goes.
But Obama has a challenge here nevertheless. In 2008, the president won 95 percent of the black vote, as opposed to about 90 percent for Gore and Kerry. What’s more, African Americans turned out at a much higher rate than they had in previous cycles, clocking in at 13 percent of the total electorate rather than the 11 percent of turnout they had generated in earlier years. This means that Obama won more than just the core Democratic vote – he also picked up a solid chunk of the black Republicans and typical non-voters supported him. All told, his extra haul with the African American vote in 2008 accounted for about 40 percent of his total victory margin over John McCain.
And this is where his flip flop on gay marriage might hurt. The roughly 10 percent of the African American population that does not count itself a Democratic constituency might swing back to the GOP this cycle, in part because of gay marriage (though, there might be other reasons, too: the economy, namely). That would cost Obama votes. Ditto if usually non-voting African Americans decide to stay home; Obama convinced many of them to head to the polls in 2008, but he might have trouble doing that again.
I’m not predicting that this will happen. Indeed, I suspect that the whole “will he or won’t he” on gay marriage was mostly a stage act – the best time for the president to flip flop on the issue would be now, so he could collect the campaign cash from the gay community in the spring and by November most people will have forgotten about it.
So, I doubt that the White House expects to lose many votes here. But there is a broader issue with Obama and the African American vote: The 2010 midterm found the Republicans moving back up to their long-run average of about 10 percent of the African American vote, and it also showed turnout ticking back down to its historical levels. Additionally, the Gallup weekly poll usually finds Obama closer to the 90 percent support level among African Americans than the 95 percent he pulled in 2008.
In other words, Obama might already have some problems on the margins with the black community, and this gay marriage flip-flop probably will not help.
Final point: The Republican party really needs to think hard about breaking in to the African American community, for a very large chunk of self-identified African Americans conservatives nevertheless vote Democratic. A big reason why is that the Republican party does not compete for their votes, which in turn leaves the Democratic party a virtual monopoly over political communication. The Democrats have used this to great effect, defining the GOP in the most negative of lights in this community.
To counter this, the GOP really needs to spend some serious time, attention, and money in rebuilding its image in the this community. This is something the party should do – not only because it was once the historic home of African Americans, but also because the Democratic party is not a perfect fit for the 90 percent these voters who reside within it. There are votes to be won here, in theory, but the GOP needs to do some significant rehabilitation work.
It would also, I hasten to add, be good for the African American community. Democracy only really exists in and through the competition between the two political parties in our nation. When one party has a monopoly, the big political decisions do not happen at the ballot box, but behind closed doors. Hence the nature of the alliance between the CBC and the labor-liberal coalition. The best way for African Americans to get the Democratic party to reflect their interests on the issues where they are usually ignored is to at least threaten to vote Republican. That would also have the effect of shifting the GOP in their direction on issues where Republicans usually do not pay attention to African American concerns.
The best example of this is the quick movement on civil rights in the middle of the last century. For generations, African Americans were locked in the segregationist South, effectively unable to vote. When they started migrating northward, the were loyal Republicans, and so the GOP actually ignored their interests, knowing full well that their votes were in the bag. It was only after the Great Depression that black voters started shifting, and for a brief period were actually a swing constituency. As their numbers in the North grew, both parties suddenly grew responsive to their needs. Harry Truman ended a century of the Democratic party's essentially racist attitude toward blacks, Dwight Eisenhower was the first president in some seventy years to push hard for voting rights, and LBJ -- the Texas senator who successfully watered down Ike's civil rights bills -- executed the flip-flop to end all flip-flops by putting his weight behind the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
It is amazing what both political parties are willing to do when they think votes are actually up for grabs!
Jay Cost is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the author of Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, available now wherever books are sold.