If Republicans really care about winning in 2016, then they may want to pay more attention to the voters who haven’t ever voted Republican. With each passing election the Republican electorate has gotten older and whiter, while America is getting younger and browner.
That presents a problem for what is increasingly becoming the Gray Old Party. The only real choice for Republicans is to win a meaningful share of brown or black voters. But while much has been made about the potential for certain GOP candidates to attract Latino voters, there is far less discussion about whether the party has candidates who have a shot at making inroads with black voters.
Of course, no GOP candidate has to win the black vote. They just have to replicate what President Bush did back in 2004 when he won 16 percent of the black vote in Ohio and 13 percent in Florida, enough to carry him to victory. And there are GOP candidates who have the potential to get much higher numbers than that.
Governor Mike Huckabee, for instance, stunned the post-Clinton Arkansas political establishment by securing record support among black voters there. Though exit polls indicate he won as much as 48 percent, political analysts believe the final number was likely lower but still significant. Governor Chris Christie won 25 percent of black male voters in his last race for governor and 18 percent of black women, not to mention a high-profile endorsement from Shaquille O’Neal. (Christie’s popularity in the state has fallen off sharply since then, though.)
In an email, Huckabee communications adviser Hogan Gidley explained that the governor has never bought into the idea that African-American voters could not be convinced to vote for a Republican candidate. “He was able to garner such a large number of African American votes because he bucked the Democrat and Republican establishment way of thinking,” Gidley wrote. “Often times, Republicans say, ‘African American voters will never vote for us,’ and Democrats say, ‘African Americans always vote for us.’ Sadly, the result is that African Americans are taken for granted by officeholders. However, Governor Huckabee refused to believe that and instead actively, aggressively and consistently—not just in election years—pursued the African American vote.”
Gidley went on to note that as governor, Huckabee made a record number of appointments of African Americans to various roles. He also pointed to his efforts to move more people off of welfare and into jobs, a distinction from those who simply talk of cutting welfare without proposing solutions for those on it beyond remaining poverty.
In an email, Dr. Ben Carson, the only African-American Republican presidential candidate, stressed the importance of helping those in struggling minority communities: “I will send a very strong message about extending a hand to lift people out of hopelessness. I know these communities and their pain. My colleagues from either party would do best by addressing this issue seriously. Many of these neighborhoods have never seen a Republican candidate for President. But they will this year.”
But while addressing poverty is certainly important, it’s criminal justice that is emerging as a defining political issue for black voters. When asked if he hopes to hear Republicans discuss criminal justice on the campaign trail, Republican fundraiser Stephen N. Lackey replied, “Absolutely.”
Lackey, who is African-American and in his 30s, explained that it is now no longer optional for Republican candidates not to weigh in on issues like body cameras, but a must if they want to be viable among black voters. “There can’t just be a conversation. They [candidates] have to have a plan,” he said. It is worth noting that Senator Rand Paul was the first presidential candidate to visit Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown, meeting with civil rights leaders there. He has also penned fiery op-eds denouncing the militarization of police and the War on Drugs.
In a phone interview, Lackey explained that he has noted a groundswell in recent months, with more and more of his black peers contacting him about possibly changing their party affiliation or at least meeting and donating to Republican candidates: “There are a lot of black Republicans that have come out of the closet since 2012.” Lackey went on to note that many African Americans—particularly younger ones—felt a sense of pride in seeing the election of President Barack Obama. But they also feel that now that he has safely gotten a second term they can explore their options in a way that they may not have felt was socially acceptable before.
He said he has received calls from young African Americans asking for strategic advice on how to publicly explain their conservative politics without incurring a backlash. “In our community for so long you were just not supposed to be a Republican—especially in the age of Obama,” he says. But when he invited young African Americans to some GOP events, including the Visions Luncheon he hosts with the powerhouse law firm Quarles and Brady, as well as the RNC’s Trailblazer Luncheon, “I think they were able to see a lot of black Republicans who weren’t weird and self-hating. They saw a bunch of business people who just understood very basic business principles that would uplift the community.” And black Republicans who were active in the black community and had not become ostracized for their conservative politics.
Chelsi Henry is a young, black lawyer in her 20s who became the first registered Republican in her family. Born to a teen mother, she found the GOP’s message and values to resonate with her because they were the values her mother had instilled in her, including economic personal responsibility. She also cares about issues like school choice. Though Henry has not yet picked a candidate, it is worth noting that Senator Ted Cruz surprised many by teaming up with black Democrats to push school choice, calling it “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” With polls showing minority parents statistically more likely to support issues like school choice, since their kids are more likely to be faced with failing public schools, school choice is another issue that may give an opening to a GOP candidate to chip away at black voters in key states, and not just Ted Cruz.
Voters like Lackey and Henry represent the greatest path to victory for the GOP. Polling for my book Party Crashing in 2008 found younger black Americans to be significantly less loyal to the two major parties than previous generations. Our polling found that of the African Americans surveyed, “35 percent of respondents ages 18-24 identified themselves as independents, while 41 percent of respondents ages 18-45 identified themselves as “politically independent” even though they are registered Democrats.” Lackey, though a Republican fundraiser, has voted for Democrats.
The bottom line is his vote and a lot of votes of young African Americans are up for grabs. But for too long both parties have acted as though our votes are not. But that may finally change in 2016. If it does it may result in a big win for the GOP, but an even bigger win for African Americans, who perhaps will finally stop being taken for granted by both major parties.