The Republican party has a problem — they are way too white. As U.S. demographics shift, and all reliable indications show that by 2050 white Americans will no longer constitute a majority of the population, it will be necessary for Republicans to reach beyond their base of support (older, white, southern, men) to remain a viable political party in a future America. In recent years, they haven’t done themselves many favors.
Which is why the Republican National Committee is planning an outreach program to recruit more black voters into the party. In the next two weeks, a website featuring testimonials from some of their most prominent black elected officials will go live. Florida Rep. Allen West, South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott and Florida Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll will have the distinction of essentially saying to the country, “yes Virginia, there are black Republicans.”
Before he was ousted as RNC chair, former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele planned to reach out to black communities, calling for his party to hold events in “urban-suburban hip-hop settings”, but his ideas gained little currency. As a result, black voters have drifted from a near-reliable 10 percent voting constituency, to a recent poll showing that, among black people, President Barack Obama holds a 91 point leading over presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, standing at 94 to 3.
With Republicans also struggling among Latino voters, women, and young people, they will need to work hard to chip away at traditionally Democratic voting blocs if they want to have a chance, come November.
“We need to explain our values to them,” RNC co-chair Sharon Day told CNN. “To be honest with you, their values and our values are more similar than dissimilar. They are not Democratic values, they are Republican values.”
Much like any other group, the chief concerns of black people coming out of the great recession, are jobs and economic security, though black unemployment has long been a problem. “They want a job, a strong economy, a good education for their children. Those are the things that matter,” Day said, “as Republicans we can bring those things to the table.”
The problem the GOP faces is not making their policies appealing to black people, but getting their members to tone down the rhetoric that alienates black voters. It doesn’t matter if their economic plan would benefit black people, though there is no evidence to support that it would, if they can not disavow the insensitive, at best, and racist, at worst, tone that too often permeates the discourse on the right, they stand little chance of capturing a significant portion of the black vote.
With Newt Gingrich’s constant attack on the “food stamp president,” or insistence that black youth be made into janitors at their school to learn the value of work because they have no examples at home, or his proud declaration that he would go to the NAACP and say they should demand jobs and not food stamps, it becomes difficult to believe that black voters are welcome in the Republican tent.
The problem is that Gingrich did not represent a fringe ideology when making these statements; he was a presidential front-runner for some time. He managed to tap into the Tea Party energy that has used racist imagery to attack Obama, obviously a very popular figure in black America, while the GOP establishment has done little to nothing to distance themselves from such inflammatory rhetoric.
Even Allen West, who figures to be a key player in this recruitment strategy, will likely prove to be of little help, as he has chosen to walk the hard line of Tea Party dogma. West has charged that the Democratic party is a plantation, and compared himself to Harriet Tubman in that he is here to deliver black people from said plantation.
Alongside former presidential candidate Herman Cain (who can forget him?), a new generation of black Republicans have insinuated that voting Democratic implies that one is not capable of thinking on their own. In their minds, black Americans have been duped into voting for Democrats against their better interests, and the only way to prove they aren’t sheep is to vote for Republicans. Insult is not a winning strategy.
Of course, black people have voted for the Republican ticket, both historically and in the recent past. And while they can’t continue to hang on to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, particularly considering that the party would be unrecognizable to Lincoln today, Republicans can look to the man they seem to want to forget was ever president for a bit of guidance. For all of his many faults, former President George W. Bush was able to capture around 10 percent of the black vote, that magic number that could help the GOP stay alive, mainly by appealing to the social conservative vein that runs through black America.
However, shifting attitudes may not help them, as support for marriage equality, the wedge issue that aided Bush, grows among black people, particularly youth voters. Not to mention that Bush recruited megachurch leaders like Bishop Eddie Long, who is now scandal-plagued Bishop Eddie Long: that technique may not hold the same sway with black folks they once did.
It’s not likely that Republicans, at least at the top of the ticket, will play to that socially conservative ideology to win over black people this year, however. Social issues are not Romney’s strong suit, and he hopes to win the presidential election by talking about the economy. But as uncovered over at Colorlines, his record of achievement and the policies that he supports currently are not at all helpful to black Americans, a case Democrats will be wont to bring up constantly to mobilize their most loyal constituency.
Earnest as they may be, Republican efforts to recruit black voters in 2012 may simply be too little, too late. This may help them down the road, but that also depends on the results of this election and the impact Obama and the Democrats are able to have for black folks in the next four years, assuming they recapture the White House. The GOP may be back at the drawing board before they even get started.
Follow Mychal Denzel Smith on Twitter at @mychalsmith