- About 90 percent of African Americans consistently vote Democratic
- If Republicans could garner just 14-16 percent of their vote, it would be “game over”
- Two activists share their thoughts on how the GOP could improve outreach to the African American community
President Trump, through both his actions and words, is clearly seeking to reach out to African Americans ahead of the 2020 general election.
The insistence and persistence of his effort has caused observers to take Trump’s outreach seriously. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), the first African American Senator from the South since Reconstruction, said that Trump could increase his share of the black vote from roughly eight percent in 2016 to 14-16 percent this year, adding that it would be “game over if we get 14 percent.”
Progressive activist and CNN regular Van Jones takes this potential swing seriously and says that Democrats need to “wake up” to the fact that “what he was saying to African-Americans can be effective” in gaining black votes.
However, Trump and other Republicans face serious headwinds in their efforts to woo black voters; about ninety percent of African Americans vote Democratic in most elections. For example, according to an exit poll by CNN in 2016, Republican candidates in North Carolina only earned eight percent of the black vote for president, twelve percent for governor, and nine percent for senator.
To gain a better understanding of that dynamic, I spoke separately with two activists who are seeking to get black conservatives and moderates to vote in a way that is consistent with their beliefs: Clarence Henderson, President of the Frederick Douglass Foundation of North Carolina, and Danielle Robinson, a founding member of BLEXIT North Carolina.
Issues are not why 90 percent of African Americans vote Democratic
Both Henderson and Robinson see a disconnect between the voting habits of many African Americans and where they stand on issues. Robinson finds that disconnect in her work:
Why do we vote consistently against our values? Many blacks are conservative and many blacks are faithful traditional Christians. We traditionally engage in small business and see government aid as temporary. I am not against social service; there was a time when I needed support. But I am against the attitude that blacks need the government, or that we want to trust the government with everything.
Henderson, a long-time civil rights activist who participated in the famous 1960 Greensboro Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, sounded a similar theme, saying “the Great Society [social welfare programs developed during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency] did damage to black families.” He also noted strong support among African Americans for school choice as a way for children to escape failing schools: “kids are being held captive within the public schools,” Henderson said. However, it may be difficult for Republicans to significantly increase their support among black voters, even those who are conservative on most issues. That is due to what political scientists Ismail K. White and Chryl N. Laird call “racialized social constraint,” a phenomenon which causes many blacks who are conservative on most issues to nevertheless vote Democratic:
[A] significant minority of African Americans – nearly a third, White and Laird report – consider themselves conservative and share at least some Republican economic and social positions. It is on this segment of the black electorate that intragroup social pressure primarily operates, causing many to back Democrats, the authors argue.
So, perhaps it is social pressure, not issues, that is the main barrier to conservatives making gains among moderate and conservative black voters.
What Republicans need to do: persistent outreach
So how can conservative candidates break through that barrier?
Both Henderson and Robinson insist that the Republican Party cannot gain support from black voters without a persistent and concerted effort to show how the Republican Party benefits them and aligns with their values. Robinson believes that the party has been blind to the potential of attracting more black voters:
[The GOP] has mistakenly believed that the black vote cannot be won. That it is a done deal and with no vehicle to reach us, they simply have not been able to do so.
Henderson takes a similar view, saying that the Republican Party “is not effectively communicating” with black voters and that they “need to share with blacks what the GOP has accomplished and how that benefits blacks,” adding:
Republicans have been unable to frame the conversation based on values and policies, such as school choice, abortion, and creating business opportunities, rather than identity. They need to educate on what the party represents.
For Henderson, that means keeping a presence among black voters: “Don’t just come to black churches at election time.” One way he suggests making a more enduring presence is for the party and Republican campaigns to hire more African Americans. This creates a bit of a catch-22 since the current weakness the Republican Party has among black voters means that there is a small potential pool of qualified black campaign workers available for Republicans to hire. Robinson sees that dilemma but addresses it in a different way:
Blexit is not a feeder group to the GOP. However, we are providing information to our community about the other side and what conservative values really mean. That’s where we increase the quality of black civic engagement, by providing the information they need to vote their values.
Perhaps Lt. Gov. Dan Forests’ campaign for governor will be a test case. Henderson has been helping Forest reach out to members of the black community and sees him engaging with black pastors and others on issues that are important to them. If Forest can manage to get that “game over” 14 percent of the black vote, other conservatives will seek to emulate that success so that the two parties will genuinely compete for black votes.
What you can do