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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


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.

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