A black pres­i­dent from the GOP?

Theodore R. John­son pre­dicts that white Repub­li­cans will vote for an African Amer­i­can

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @DrTedJ

Two years be­fore Don­ald Trump be­came pres­i­dent, he tweeted, “Sadly, be­cause pres­i­dent Obama has done such a poor job as pres­i­dent, you won’t see another black pres­i­dent for gen­er­a­tions!” But six months into Trump’s ten­ure, there’s a grow­ing buzz among Democrats that the next black pres­i­dent has al­ready been iden­ti­fied: first-term Sen. Ka­mala Harris of Cal­i­for­nia. “She’s run­ning for pres­i­dent,” one fundraiser told the Hill. “Take it to the bank.” “The dom­i­nant trend in Demo­cratic Party pol­i­tics is fresh, new and in­ter­est­ing,” another fundraiser told Politico. “And Ka­mala is the tri­fecta on that.”

I’m bullish on the idea that we’ll have another black pres­i­dent. But it’s not a given that the next one will be a Demo­crat.

That might seem like a wild as­ser­tion, par­tic­u­larly given the role that racial re­sent­ment played in Trump’s elec­toral vic­tory. It’s no se­cret that the GOP con­tin­ues to fail spec­tac­u­larly at mes­sag­ing to black vot­ers. The party’s present

ap­proach to African Amer­i­cans is best summed up by Trump’s mock­ingly un­se­ri­ous en­treaty last year to vote Repub­li­can: “What the hell do you have to lose?”

Black vot­ers have lent long-stand­ing and over­whelm­ing sup­port to the Demo­cratic Party. And most of the na­tion’s ris­ing black po­lit­i­cal stars are Democrats: Harris, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and for­mer gov­er­nor De­val Pa­trick (Mass.) — who is, re­port­edly, the pre­ferred can­di­date of sev­eral prom­i­nent Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion alumni, in­clud­ing Va­lerie Jar­rett.

The con­ven­tional wis­dom as­sumes that a black pres­i­den­tial can­di­date can suc­ceed only in the more racially pro­gres­sive of the two ma­jor par­ties — the Democrats — and with the wide­spread sup­port of black vot­ers. But this isn’t nec­es­sar­ily so.

An ex­am­i­na­tion of gu­ber­na­to­rial and sen­a­to­rial elec­tions since the pas­sage of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 shows that there have been com­pa­ra­ble num­bers of pop­u­larly elected black Repub­li­cans (eight) and pop­u­larly elected black Democrats (10). Though the two black gover­nors were Democrats, the ma­jor­ity of the 10 black lieu­tenant gover­nors have been Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing the two cur­rently hold­ing of­fice: Je­nean Hamp­ton of Ken­tucky and Boyd Ruther­ford of Mary­land. In the Se­nate, there have been two black Repub­li­cans to four Democrats. At the statewide level, where ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts aren’t a fac­tor, a black Repub­li­can in a top of­fice is no more anoma­lous than a black Demo­crat.

More sig­nif­i­cant to the prospects for a black GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee is the spe­cific con­ver­gence of trends play­ing out across the coun­try, par­tic­u­larly the in­ten­si­fy­ing hy­per-par­ti­san­ship. As the na­tion has sorted it­self along party lines and an­tipa­thy has risen be­tween the two sides, white Repub­li­cans who might har­bor racial an­i­mus are will­ing to shelve that im­pulse to en­sure that Democrats lose elec­tions. “At a min­i­mum, the level of ide­o­log­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics masks racially prej­u­diced vot­ing be­hav­ior, and at a max­i­mum, it ren­ders it in­op­er­a­ble,” ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study on white con­ser­va­tives in the GOP’s base from pro­fes­sors M.V. Hood of the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia and Seth McKee of Texas Tech. The pull of par­ti­san­ship is so strong and has be­come so cen­tral to the iden­tity of white Repub­li­cans that their views on race take a back seat when they en­ter the vot­ing booth.

Hood and McKee also found that “white con­ser­va­tives are ei­ther more sup­port­ive of mi­nor­ity Repub­li­cans or just as likely to vote for a mi­nor­ity as they are a white Repub­li­can,” and that “the base of the GOP does not dis­crim­i­nate against mi­nor­ity nom­i­nees in high-pro­file con­tem­po­rary gen­eral elec­tions.” This find­ing helps ex­plain the rel­a­tive surge in black Repub­li­cans in Congress since the tea party move­ment, in­clud­ing Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) and Reps. Mia Love (Utah), Will Hurd (Tex.) and Allen West (Fla.) — not to men­tion In­dian Amer­i­can for­mer gover­nors Nikki Ha­ley (S.C.) and Bobby Jin­dal (La.).

This phe­nom­e­non also can pro­vide an ad­van­tage to black can­di­dates in pri­maries and the gen­eral elec­tion. In Repub­li­can pri­maries, vot­ers are over­whelm­ingly white and are be­com­ing more con­ser­va­tive; they tend to choose the more con­ser­va­tive can­di­date. Un­der­stand­ing this, mi­nor­ity can­di­dates of­ten run to the right flank. It’s un­sur­pris­ing, then, that Her­itage Ac­tion for Amer­ica, an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion associated with the con­ser­va­tive Her­itage Foun­da­tion, scored Scott, Love and West as more con­ser­va­tive than the av­er­age House Repub­li­can. (Hurd, who rep­re­sents a pur­ple dis­trict that is ma­jor­ity Latino, nec­es­sar­ily tacks more to the cen­ter.)

Two re­lated stud­ies show that in South Carolina, “Nikki Ha­ley and Tim Scott are more pop­u­lar than their white Repub­li­can col­league Lind­sey Gra­ham,” and that “con­ser­va­tives, evan­gel­i­cals, and less-ed­u­cated in­di­vid­u­als re­spond more pos­i­tively to Scott when he is de­scribed as a ‘Tea Party fa­vorite’ ” than as the “first African Amer­i­can Se­na­tor from South Carolina since Re­con­struc­tion.”

Con­sider Ben Car­son’s 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Car­son, an in­ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cian, rode a strong evan­gel­i­cal mes­sage and cri­tiques of the me­dia — both of which play well with con­ser­va­tive au­di­ences — to the top of the GOP pres­i­den­tial polls. He held steady there for a few weeks un­til ter­ror­ist at­tacks and national se­cu­rity con­cerns (not his strong suit) changed the tenor of the race in Trump’s fa­vor. In other words, it’s not that racial an­i­mus doesn’t ex­ist, it’s that the power of con­ser­va­tive iden­tity can out­weigh it.

The path to the pres­i­dency for GOP can­di­dates re­quires win­ning a ma­jor­ity of white vot­ers in the gen­eral elec­tion, not just the pri­maries. But ev­ery Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee since the Vot­ing Rights Act has hand­ily won white vot­ers, ex­cept in 1968, 1992 and 1996, when mar­gins of vic­tory were smaller be­cause of some­what com­pet­i­tive third-party can­di­dates. In the cur­rent hy­per­par­ti­san at­mos­phere, if a black can­di­date can ap­peal to Repub­li­can vot­ers, he or she can cap­ture the same coali­tion that white Repub­li­cans use to win elec­tions.

The Demo­cratic Party, for its part, is well aware of its poor per­for­mance among white vot­ers and has be­gun fo­cus­ing its at­ten­tion on them, specif­i­cally the white work­ing class. Post-elec­tion anal­y­sis shows that it was these vot­ers, shift­ing from the Demo­cratic Party to Trump, who were ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s un­do­ing. Some pro­gres­sives have ex­pressed con­cern that the party’s at­tempts to win back white work­ing-class vot­ers will come at the ex­pense of black vot­ers, de­spite the fact that black vot­ers are the most re­li­able part of the Demo­cratic base. “With its ob­ses­sive fo­cus on woo­ing vot­ers who sup­ported Don­ald Trump,” writes “Brown Is the New White” au­thor Steve Phillips, the party is “ne­glect­ing the cor­ner­stone of its coali­tion.”

The Democrats’ in­tra­mu­ral de­bate was ev­i­dent in the re­cent race for the Demo­cratic National Com­mit­tee chair­man­ship, when an ally of even­tual win­ner Tom Perez said of Rep. Keith El­li­son — who, as the first black con­gress­man from Min­nesota and the first Mus­lim elected to Congress, holds more pro­gres­sive po­si­tions than many oth­ers in the party — “Is he re­ally the guy we need right now when we are try­ing to get all of those dis­af­fected white work­ing-class peo­ple to rally around our mes­sage of eco­nomic equal­ity?” This quote il­lus­trates a de­sire to ad­dress oft-cited white eco­nomic anx­i­ety by sub­or­di­nat­ing is­sues of race and re­li­gion. Now Democrats must de­ter­mine whether their next elec­toral vic­tory lies in re­cap­tur­ing the white work­ing-class vot­ers who used to be part of their base or dou­bling down on the de­mo­graph­ics-is-destiny strat­egy, which pri­or­i­tizes ap­peals to the grow­ing seg­ment of mi­nor­ity vot­ers.

So while a black lib­eral is fight­ing up­stream in a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of racial and ide­o­log­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion, that same cli­mate could work in fa­vor of the black con­ser­va­tive can­di­date. And though black Demo­cratic can­di­dates of­ten in­crease black voter turnout — see 2008 and 2012 — the rash of re­stric­tive state vot­ing laws has sup­pressed turnout among mi­nor­ity vot­ers. Be­cause a black Repub­li­can nom­i­nee doesn’t rely on black vot­ers, the elec­toral fac­tors that hurt black Demo­cratic can­di­dates don’t have nearly the same ef­fect. In an irony be­fit­ting to­day’s bizarre po­lit­i­cal land­scape, a black Repub­li­can nom­i­nee may ben­e­fit elec­torally from dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing laws.

This leads to yet another trend that could help: grow­ing black dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the Demo­cratic Party. Even the elec­tion of a black Demo­crat to the pres­i­dency wasn’t enough to com­pel the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to meet de­mands to ad­dress sys­temic racial dis­par­i­ties in a mean­ing­ful way. For all its loy­alty to the party, the black elec­torate has not re­al­ized the pol­icy gains that should ac­com­pany its vot­ing power. Yet, black vot­ers con­tinue to sup­port the Demo­cratic Party for lack of vi­able op­tions in the vot­ing booth. This co­nun­drum is called elec­toral cap­ture, a con­cept that Prince­ton pro­fes­sor Paul Frymer de­scribes as a bloc’s over­whelm­ing sup­port for one po­lit­i­cal party as a re­sult of the op­pos­ing party hav­ing no in­ter­est in, or mak­ing no ef­fort to win, the bloc’s votes. As a re­sult, some black Amer­i­cans have turned to other forms of po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion — black turnout was down seven per­cent­age points from 2012 to 2016 — such as ral­lies and demon­stra­tions, the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, protest votes, and prin­ci­pled ex­its from the elec­toral process. Black Amer­i­cans’ dis­sat­is­fac­tion hurt Democrats, not Repub­li­cans, on Elec­tion Day.

This is where black men put their fin­ger on the scale. A black Repub­li­can nom­i­nee would peel away a small but sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the black elec­torate, mostly men. Though black men largely hold lib­eral views, more of them than black women buy into the con­ser­va­tive mantra of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, small gov­ern­ment and eco­nomic suf­fi­ciency as a rem­edy to racial dis­crim­i­na­tion. Also, my re­search, sup­ported by sim­i­lar find­ings, found that black men are much more likely than black women to vote for a black pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee re­gard­less of party or pol­icy views. This sug­gests that a black Repub­li­can can­di­date can cut into the Demo­cratic base to some ex­tent in the ab­sence of a black Demo­cratic can­di­date. If Trump man­aged to get 13 per­cent of black men to vote for him (Mitt Rom­ney drew 11 per­cent in 2012 against Obama), a black Repub­li­can can­di­date is cer­tain to ex­ceed that by some no­tice­able mar­gin. And in a ra­zor-thin elec­tion, black men vot­ing along racial lines could help tip the out­come.

Taken to­gether, the cur­rent land­scape pro­vides fer­tile soil for the idea of a black Repub­li­can in the White House. Of course, when it comes to the pres­i­dency and elec­toral pol­i­tics, good con­di­tions are hardly enough to win. There are sim­ply too many other fac­tors at play, from can­di­dates’ lik­a­bil­ity to things they can’t con­trol, such as the state of the econ­omy.

And race still mat­ters: White Repub­li­can pri­mary con­tenders could try to em­ploy coded racial ap­peals to den­i­grate com­pet­i­tive black can­di­dates (or to den­i­grate white can­di­dates — re­call the Ge­orge W. Bush team’s at­tacks on Sen. John McCain dur­ing the 2000 South Carolina pri­mary). Fur­ther, be­ing black and very con­ser­va­tive is in­suf­fi­cient (re­call the Alan Keyes, Her­man Cain and Car­son cam­paigns). And there’s the re­al­ity that the Repub­li­can bench for vi­able black can­di­dates is ba­si­cally empty, ex­cept, per­haps, for Sen. Scott.

Still, if the no­tion of a black Repub­li­can pres­i­dency oc­cur­ring be­fore the next Demo­cratic one seems doubt­ful, it’s be­com­ing less so as our pol­i­tics be­comes more di­vided and stress frac­tures emerge in his­toric coali­tions. Given the un­pre­dictabil­ity and hy­per-par­ti­san­ship of the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, the po­lit­i­cal winds now blow­ing could in­deed fill the sails of a black Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee.

Theodore R. John­son is a fel­low at New Amer­ica and an ad­junct pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s McCourt School of Public Pol­icy.


Talk is al­ready build­ing around Sen. Ka­mala Harris (Calif.) as the Democrats’ next black pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Stud­ies and re­cent elec­tions sug­gest that the GOP could also se­lect a black nom­i­nee.

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