In ‘Rule and Ruin‘, Geoff Kabaservice, explores the history of the Republican Party, shining light on what some consider now an endangered species: the Republican ‘moderate’. Geoff is an invaluable resource in our understanding of the inner-workings of party politics and the strange calculus that leads a party to appeal to one group at the neglect or even offense of another.

Geoff and I have spoken on several occasions about the disconnect between African Americans and the Republican Party, often with an eye on the past. However, in this discussion or ‘diablog’ as I’ll call it we will turn our eye to the future.

Geoff begins our discussion. I hope you enjoy.

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Dear Shawn,

How quickly we forget. I was being interviewed last week and completely blanked on the name of the person associated with the 9-9-9 tax plan. It was my own personal Rick Perry “oops” moment.

Once the tape recorder was off, of course, I remembered that the person in question was Herman Cain, aka “the Herminator.” Cain was the conservative African-American pizza CEO and Tea Party activist who was one of the motley crew of candidates running in the Republican presidential primaries leading up to last year’s election. He quickly disappeared from the news after he suspended his campaign in December 2011 amid sexual harassment allegations. But strange as it may seem to recall, Cain was the GOP front-runner for most of that fall, and for a while he led President Obama in the polls.

Although Cain is now more the answer to a trivia question than a serious political figure, his candidacy received enormous media attention. Why? Let’s be honest here: it was mostly because he was a black man seeking the nomination of a party that has repelled black voters for nearly half a century.

Cain claimed that if he were the Republican presidential nominee, he would have received more than a third of the black vote. As it turned out, the eventual Republican candidate Mitt Romney received 4 percent of the black vote, and I’m guessing that some of those votes were from people who were too nearsighted or distracted to check the right box.

Even if through some miracle Cain had become the Republican nominee, I really doubt that he would have enjoyed much popularity among African-American voters. Ever since 1980, the black vote for the GOP has hovered between 8 and 12 percent — although Barack Obama’s candidacy sliced that to 4 percent in both 2008 and 2012. Cain, when asked why blacks don’t support Republicans, answered that “African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view.” That sort of condescension can’t have endeared him to too many black voters.

But is the Republican Party’s fate to be forever spurned by the vast majority of African-Americans? It hasn’t always been this way. The Republican Party was formed by abolitionists, and for many years after the Civil War, almost all blacks who were able to vote cast their ballots for Republicans.

Most black leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Senior, were Republicans. When I was researching my book on the Republican Party, Rule and Ruin, I came across a 1970 clipping from a small Florida newspaper that carried a roll-call of once-familiar black Republican heroes. It paid tribute to “The handsome debonair approach of a Bob Church, the color and dynamism of Oscar Adams, the quiet intellectual depth of a Scipio Jones, the calm self-assurance of Eugene Booze, the spiritual dignity of Bishop John A. Gregg, the warm charm, chivalry and courtliness of Walter Cohen, the showmanship of ‘Gooseneck’ Bill McDonald, the brilliance of legal mind of Perry Howard, the financial understanding of John C. Napier, the humility of Booker T. Washington, and the mass magnetism and organizing genius of J. Finley Wilson.”

The Democratic Party began to attract a greater percentage of the black vote under President Franklin D. Roosevelt — although Ira Katznelson’s excellent new book Fear Itself reminds us that the shape of the New Deal was determined by segregationist Democrats in Congress, who ensured that few benefits went to African-Americans in the South.

Even so, Dwight Eisenhower was able to win 39 percent of the black vote in 1956, and even Richard Nixon took 32 percent in 1960. A greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats in both houses of Congress voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and it seemed for a moment that both parties would be competitive with black voters.

But one of the few Republicans to vote against the Civil Rights Act was Barry Goldwater, the conservative Arizona senator who seized the 1964 GOP presidential nomination. Goldwater openly courted Southern segregationists, and the Republican share of the black vote collapsed to 6 percent. It has never seriously rebounded since.

Republican strategists know that the party’s poor performance with African-Americans and other minorities is a real handicap for its competitiveness in national elections. The Republican National Committee’s “autopsy” report after the 2012 elections called for the party to make significant outreach efforts to groups that Republicans typically overlook, including blacks, Hispanics, Asians, young people, and gays and lesbians.

Most Republicans I have talked to feel that they welcome blacks and other minorities with open arms. They point to Herman Cain’s presidential candidacy (and Alan Keyes’ before him), the appointments of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice during the Bush presidency, and the electoral successes of a long list of minority Republicans including Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Susana Martinez, Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval, Tim Scott, Allen West, and others.

And some Republican politicians have done well with minority voters. I’m thinking particularly of Chris Christie, who appears to have won over 20% of the African-American vote and a majority of the Latino vote in his 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial reelection.

Some exceptionally optimistic Republican strategists feel that there are reasons to believe that Asians and Hispanics are natural Republicans temporarily diverted from their true political home, and that in the post-Obama era even African-Americans may start voting more like other predominantly Protestant groups. They point out that a 2010 Gallup poll showed that more non-Hispanic blacks consider themselves conservative (29%) than liberal (24%), with a plurality (43%) identifying as moderates. The poll posited that this was because more blacks (84%) than whites (63%) consider religion to be an important part of their lives.

So what do you think are the prospects for the Republican Party attracting a greater share of minority voters in the future? How should they go about trying to get those voters, and what will have to change for the GOP to have any success with these communities?

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party (Oxford University Press, 2012), which is now out in paperback.

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Hey Geoff,

You’re right. Time has flown. I was reminded of this by a friend of mine – a black Republican no less – who had a long inspirational talk with ‘The Hermanator’, while flying from Chicago to Atlanta. Cain, according to my friend, has not ruled out another Presidential bid which would be great for the pundits, the Democrats, and perhaps the Pokemon franchise, but not for the Republican Party, which brings me to your questions. What are the prospects for the Republican Party attracting more minority voters in the future? And what would have to change for them to achieve this goal?

It’s important I think to reiterate that the last Republican candidate for President won 4% of the African American vote. Four percent. The conservative pundit class tends to focus on the ways Democrats incentivize voters, especially African Americans, but there is a tendency to attribute every black vote that the Democrats win to some kind of bribe or a dependency mindset. That could of course explain some Democratic votes, in the same way that defense contracts explain some Republican votes, but that doesn’t explain why Republicans can only win 4% of African Americans with Romney or 10% with Bush. Clearly, this is about more than incentives.

First and foremost Republicans need to start asking better questions. It’s not enough to wonder why blacks don’t vote for them. They should ask ‘why don’t we attract black entrepreneurs?’ ‘Or black veterans?’ ‘Or black ministers?’ Why is it that if we take the profile of the average Republican voter and make him or her African American, the chances of that person being a Republican vanish? 

Some operative will undoubtedly point to some kind of government “handout” – free cell phones or cereal or something. That person should be fired because they are not paying attention. Remember. We are not talking about every black voter.  The above categories (veterans, churchgoers, etc.) account for at least 30% of the black community and they don’t need free cell phones, cereal etc. Entrepreneurs love tax breaks and ministers love faith based initiatives. So, why are they almost certain not to vote Republican?

The questioning should extend into policy too. Why is it that Corey Booker can promote education reform to black voters, but Republicans can’t? Why can Bill Clinton champion welfare reform and go on to be called the ‘first black president’, but Republicans can’t? If we think about it for a moment many ideas from the Right – tax free or urban enterprise zones, the AMT, and faith based initiatives are popular with far more than 4% or even 10% of African Americans. So, why are Republicans unable to benefit from this popularity?

Some operative will undoubtedly quote our friend Herman Cain: ‘brainwashing!’ That person should also be fired, because they too are not paying attention. The above policies are debated endlessly at the local level and blacks come down on either side depending on their point of view, but no matter which policy they choose, they vote Democrat. Why?

The dependency/brainwashed narrative is seductive of course because it creates a comforting and convenient kind of dichotomy. “We– the GOP – are the party of freedom”. “They – the Democrats – are the party of dependency”. You and I know the story is far more complicated than that and Republican politicians that have success with African Americans and educated women and Asians and Hispanics tend to acknowledge that complexity. Rather than focus on the makers vs. takers or welfare queens vs. hardworking Americans, they focus on what Americans share in common. The inability of conservatives to find this common ground extends to natural disasters and helps explain Chris Christie’s – not popularity with African Americans – but his lack of unpopularity.

Christie was of course blasted by many on the Right for… well… being civil to President Obama when he visited NJ after Hurricane Sandy, but what was more telling for me and many others was the difference  in rhetoric. Unlike Jindal who used the example of Hurricane Katrina to illustrate the resourcefulness of some and not others or Haley Barbour who did the same. Chris Christie recognized a collective responsibility for rebuilding the region and those who were affected by it were not labeled ‘refugees’ or potential rioters, they were people who had been dealt a bad hand and were in need of help  – yes from themselves – but also from their government.

So, I think moderation is a major piece of the puzzle. You do an excellent job in your book of defining moderation as not merely a pragmatic tool for winning elections, but a principled approach to problem solving.

I’ve found in my reading that Republicans that were successful with African Americans were what you would call ‘moderates’. Define moderate for us. Why are moderate Republicans so rare these days? Have you made a connection between the decline of moderation and the unpopularity of the GOP with minority voters?  I also suspect there are some disadvantages – especially rhetorical – to moderation. What are some of those and do they help explain the decline of the moderate Republican?

Sources:

Jeffrey M. Jones, “Asians Lean Left Politically,” Gallup Politics February 3, 2010. http://www.gallup.com/poll/125579/Asian-Americans-Lean-Left-Politically.aspx

Norman Jones, “Black Messiah of the Republican Party,” Weekly Bulletin March 20, 1970. Steven Livengood Papers (Cornell University) 3: “Press Clippings (Jan.-Mar. 1970).”

Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (New York: Liveright, 2013)

Republican National Committee, “Growth and Opportunity Project,” March 2013. http://growthopp.gop.com/RNC_Growth_Opportunity_Book_2013.pdf

Alan Silverleib, “Exit polls: Christie and McAuliffe took different paths to victory,” cnn.com November 6, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/05/politics/election-2013-exit-polls/

Sean Trende, “Cain, the GOP and the Black Vote,” Real Clear Politics November 23, 2011. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/11/23/cain_the_gop_and_the_black_vote_112168.html