When Newt Gingrich suggested recently that Republicans should court African-American voters in 2012, the claim drew both ire and guffaws. His insistence, in an attack on the president’s jobs record, that “no administration in modern times has failed younger blacks more than the Obama administration” is demonstrably false, yet his suggestion that Republicans can reap electoral rewards by cultivating black voters is not ridiculous. Jeer as we might at the idea that black voters will abandon Obama for Romney, Gingrich or Pawlenty, the question of whether and how Republicans can be competitive among black voters is a good one.
The American electorate is nearly evenly divided between those who identify as Democrats and those who call themselves Republicans. The recruitment of even a small percentage of African-Americans could pay huge dividends for the GOP in battleground states. Demographic shifts in the electorate will soon require Republicans to win minority votes just to remain competitive, and African-Americans face serious concerns about how to gain leverage in a two-party system when their votes are so reliably attached to a single party. Some African-American leaders have called for a re-evaluation of black voters’ commitment to Democrats, arguing that the party offers little policy incentive in return for electoral loyalty. In fact, there have been signs in the recent past that this re-evaluation is already under way.
Evidence that African-Americans were beginning to reconsider their partisan attachments was visible in 2004, after George W. Bush increased his share of black voters from 7 to 12 percent. With my colleague Jeffrey Grynaviski, I wrote a paper at the time analyzing longitudinal data from the American National Election Studies and found that African-Americans in 2004 looked quite a bit like Southern whites and Catholics forty years earlier, on the eve of their partisan conversions. Like African-Americans today, Catholics and white Southerners once identified strongly with the Democratic Party, but beginning in the late 1960s they slowly converted to the Republicans.
In 2004 black voters shared two characteristics with these groups. First, although African-Americans still reliably supported Democrats, their identification with the party had weakened considerably. Bush’s re-election marked the twentieth anniversary of Jesse Jackson’s first primary bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, a race that became a public struggle between African-Americans and the party, revealing the dearth of a partywide progressive racial agenda. In the decades since Lyndon Johnson ushered in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, black Americans had voted loyally with the Democrats, fully severing the century-old commitment to the Republican Party initiated by the Civil War and Reconstruction. But by 1984 black voters sensed that their new partisan allies were fickle on matters of economic, social and political justice for African-Americans. In the wake of Jackson’s presidential bids, black Americans became less likely to identify as strong Democrats, and the percentage labeling themselves independents doubled.
The other characteristic shared by African-Americans in 2004 with groups that had undergone historical partisan shifts was the growing perception that there is little meaningful difference between the parties. White voters reported an increasing sense of difference between the parties over the past thirty years, but the trend among black voters was the opposite. Using data from the 1980s through 2004, Jeff and I showed that African-Americans had much stronger emotional and psychological attachments to the Democratic Party when they perceived it to advocate racial and economic justice reliably. But the more interchangeable the Democrats appeared with Republicans on issues of racial advancement, the less enthusiasm black Americans showed for them.
Ready to present our paper, Jeff and I attended the 2005 American Political Science Association conference in Washington. It began two days after the levees broke following Hurricane Katrina. Even as panels proceeded, our TVs were tuned to the disaster coverage. The Bush administration’s failure to respond dramatically and immediately tempered our findings. Overnight the forecasted decline in black Democratic partisanship halted, as a majority of black Americans (according to Pew data) became angry with a government response they believed would have been faster if the victims were white. In New Orleans, the disastrous consequences of the storm were compounded by a sluggish and then militaristic response to black suffering.
Hurricane Katrina was a powerful visual cue that Republicans are not the allies for black interests. In a matter of days it returned black voters solidly to the Democratic fold. Less than two years later Democrats won a majority in Congress. And in the next presidential election black voters formed the coalition base for the election of the first African-American president.
But as memories of Katrina become more distant and the reality of a black president becomes more routine, the possibility of shifting partisan alliances may re-emerge. In his forthcoming book, Not in Our Lifetimes, political scientist Michael Dawson maps the electoral consequences of the racial divide that reopened following Katrina. He shows that although black Americans responded with enthusiastic support for Obama’s candidacy, his election alone will not reverse decades of loosening attachment to Democrats. It is too early to predict whether black voters will go to the polls at the same levels they did in 2008, but Democrats should not take black votes for granted. The detachment of even a small percentage of African-Americans in the next election would be a boon for Republicans. It is not necessary for African-Americans to become Republican voters; only that they fail to become voters at all.