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African-American Vote in GOP Race Falls Below Measurable Levels | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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African-American Vote in GOP Race Falls Below Measurable Levels

In Georgia, where African-Americans make up 31 percent of the electorate, the African-American turnout in this year’s Republican primary was—according to exit polls—barely 3 percent of the total GOP vote on Super Tuesday.

So few African-Americans voted in the Republican primary that it was impossible for the exit pollsters to determine whether Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul was the favorite. The numbers are so slight that they cannot be accurately assigned, so each candidate’s support level is simply identified as “N/A”—not available.

In Michigan, where African-American citizens make up almost 15 percent of the population, the African-American turnout in this year’s Republican primary was—according to the exit polls—barely 2 percent of the total GOP vote.

So few African-Americans voted in the Republican primary that it was impossible to ascertain whether Romney, Santorum, Gingrich or Paul was preferred.

In Florida, where African-American citizens make up 16 percent of the population, the African-American turnout in this year’s Republican primary was—according to the exit polls—barely 1 percent of the total GOP vote.

As in Georgia and Michigan, the African-American participation level in the GOP primary was so low that it was impossible to determine whether Romney, Santorum, Gingrich or Paul was favored.

In South Carolina, where African-American citizens make up 28 percent of the population, the African-American turnout in this year’s Republican primary was—according to exit polls—barely 1 percent of the total GOP vote.

And, once more, it was impossible to identify a preference for any of the Republican contenders.

Today, voters in Mississippi will go to the polls to express their preferences in the tightly contested Republican presidential race.

Mississippi has the highest African-American population of any state in the union. Over 37 percent of all Mississippians are African Americans.

In Alabama, which also votes today, the African-American population is over 26 percent—making it the state with the sixth highest African-American population in the country.

Will the participation rate in the Republican primaries in those states be any higher.

Don’t bet on it.

Instead, let’s consider why the African-American participation rate in the primaries of these states has been—and, in all likelihood will continue to be—so low.

Yes, of course, African-Americans have for decades tended toward the Democratic column. And, yes, the first African-American president now sits in the White House as a Democrat.

But there is more to it than that.

The asnwer to the question of why African-American turnout in GOP primaries has fallen to such low levels has at least something to do with a failure of will. For all the talk among GOP operatives and conservative pundits about how the party really is trying to reach out, there is simply no evidence from the primary voting that the efforts are paying off. Indeed, to suggest that the current crop of GOP candidates is seriously contending for the African-American vote is to deny the numbers. While all of the candidates have individual African-American supporters, none of them has made the sort of connection that Republicans once made.

And at least one of the current contenders, Mitt Romney, knows this.

He is, after all, the son of one of the most honorable Republicans of the era when the party really tried to secure a significant African-American vote—and sometimes succeeded.

When Mitt Romney’s father sought reelection for governor of Michigan in 1966, he got 30 percent of the African-American vote. Two years later, when George Romney sought the Republican nomination for the presidency, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. reportedly praised the prospect.

Why? It was not just a matter of words. It was a matter of deeds.

As governor of Michigan, George Romney marched for, lobbied for and then signed into law civil rights legislation. After creating a state Civil Rights Commission, George Romney declared, “We can in Michigan, on the basis of this new fundamental law, provide a leadership for every other state to follow.”

At the Republican National Convention of 1964, he led the fight for a strong civil rights plank. After Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, George Romney refused to support the Republican nominee for president that year.

“Whites and Negroes, in my opinion, have got to learn to know each other,” George Romney argued. “Barry Goldwater didn’t have any background to understand this, to fathom them, and I couldn’t get through to him.”

George Romney’s commitment, not just to civil rights but to building genuine bonds of familiarity and commitment across lines of race was in the tradition of the party of Abraham Lincoln.

It should go without saying that he would be horrified, absolutely horrified, that his party has degenerated to a point where its appeal to African-American voters is so slim that their sentiments cannot even be measured in states with the highest African-American populations in the nation.

The Republican Party has a rich history of connection with and commitment to the African-American electorate. That history, George Romney argued, was rooted in “basic American and Republican principles.”

That the connection has become so very frayed in this year’s election campaign is striking. George Romney wanted a Republican Party that could compete at every turn with Democrats for the votes of African-Americans.

Unfortunately, as George Romney’s son grabs for the GOP presidential nomination that eluded his father in 1968, the numbers from the primaries suggest that George Romney’s vision may well be further from reach now than it has ever been.

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