Republicans are obsessed with the Hispanic vote. It’s an understandable disorder considering how critical that vote has become. In the last two presidential elections, the Hispanic vote, among all minority voting blocs, was by far the most substantial as well as the most potentially amenable to the Republican message. In 2008 and 2012, Republican presidential candidates failed to win a substantial number of Hispanic voters – a project made infinitely more difficult by the presence of a minority candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket. In 2016, Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot, and the GOP could very well have a Hispanic or a fluent Spanish speaker at the top of the ballot. And yet, Republicans are still fighting the last war. They are fixed on peeling off just enough Hispanic voters to win the White House. The GOP and Republican presidential hopefuls alike should also be aiming to lay siege to the commanding heights of the Democratic Party’s “coalition of the ascending,” the central pillar of which is the African-American vote.
It would be wise for the GOP to prepare for the possibility that it’s efforts to attract a critical mass of Hispanic voters could fail. All the Latino friendly Republican candidates in the world may be unable to repair the damage done by a primary that seems set to turn on antipathy toward Hispanic immigrant culture. The left and the allies in the press will eagerly try to conflate the GOP’s frustration with an administration that flouts immigration law with xenophobia, but the rhetorical overreach displayed by a select few self-descried Republicans has made that undertaking lamentably easy. A robust and comprehensive Republican strategy that sets its sights higher than securing a safe 50 percent plus one in November of next year would be a smart, conservative approach to minority outreach. For Republicans, the black vote presents an almost entirely untapped well. What’s more, if Republicans were even modestly successful in appealing to African-Americans, it would make winning elections substantially more difficult for Democratic politicians.
“It’s tough to overstate just how critical black voters have become to today’s Democratic coalition, particularly when it comes to the Electoral College,” Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter observed last week. She noted that Barack Obama’s entire margin of victory in 2012 in four key states that command nearly 50 electoral votes came entirely from African-American voters. “According to our number crunching, had ZERO Latinos voted in 2012, Obama would have lost the popular vote but still would have won the White House with 283 Electoral votes,” Walter discovered. She added that Hillary Clinton would not be doomed by pre-2008 levels of Democratic support from black voters (George W. Bush won the support of 11 percent of African-Americans in 2004). Her margins for error would, however, be considerably reduced.
And Hillary Clinton knows that her victory will hinge on whether she can inherit Obama’s coalition of voters and cement it into a Democratic coalition. With that in mind, Clinton has worked tirelessly to maintain the trust and support of black Democrats. “If African-American enthusiasm for Clinton comes close to matching Obama’s, then the base-first approach will pay dividends down the road,” National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar noted. “But if she’s winning non-white voters in the primary by default — running against old white men with limited ties to the rising Democratic electorate — she could face a rude awakening next November.”
Republicans candidates have by and large done their party a disservice by focusing on electoral math that could yield the GOP national victories even without a substantial number of African-American voters. That tendency to overlook the African-American vote has yielded a rift that will not heal in just one election cycle. What’s more, Republican voters might be so discouraged by the daunting prospect of winning back black voters’ support that they may feel their energy is better spent elsewhere. A study published in Political Research Quarterly in May revealed that even black Republican candidates fail to generate much enthusiasm among African-American voters. But the key to convincing Democrat-leaning African-American voters to take another look at the GOP platform is not to attempt to play the game of identity politics better than Democrats, even if such an outcome were possible. That project will hinge on whether Republicans are speaking to and of the African-American experience.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul deserves unqualified praise for inaugurating and sticking with the project of reaching out to black voters on their terms. The senator was mocked by those on the left who are threatened by the prospect of effective GOP minority outreach, but Paul deserved to be gently chided for giving Howard University students a trite history lesson. “Did they all know that the NAACP was founded by Republicans?” Paul asked a roomful of African-American students in 2013, all of whom rolled their eyes and responded with an exhausted “yes.” Condescension won’t convince anyone. African-American voters don’t need a history lesson.
The summer of 2015 has been pivotal. The long, hot summer of racial violence that many anticipated would materialize following the violence in Baltimore and Ferguson in the last six months has thus far failed to materialize. In the Deep South, Republican officeholders are furling the Confederate flag; the party of emancipation and desegregation has dealt another deep wound to the legacy of institutionalized racism. Some of the GOP’s 2016 candidates, like Texas Governor Rick Perry, have delivered masterful addresses on the nature of racial disparity. In doing so, the governor scolded his party’s 1964 nominee, Barry Goldwater, over his antipathy toward the Civil Rights Act. “Too often, we Republicans – myself included – have emphasized our message on the Tenth Amendment but not our message on the Fourteenth,” Perry emphasized. Would that the GOP-led Congress could devote some energy to reforming the gutted Voting Rights Act with conservative and federalist principles in mind (while they still have the opportunity). That, too, would go a long way toward restoring some trust.
It was not that long ago that African-American dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party was palpable. The Washington Post observed in 1998 that the perception among black voters that were being taken for granted sparked “outright rebellion and open flirting with the GOP to growing rumblings of discontent.” The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina combined with Barack Obama’s ascension put a halt to that process, but that may be changing. In 2014, Republican candidates won 10 percent of the African-American vote – the best GOP showing with this demographic since 2006. Perhaps most worrying for Democrats was in pivotal Florida, where Gov. Rick Scott outperformed most of his fellow Republicans by winning 12 percent of the black vote.
The substantial number of black voters who identify as liberals will always have a home in the Democratic Party, but those with less firm ideological affiliations could be willing to take a second look at the GOP. It’s up to Republicans to give them something worth looking at.