Thoughts on the Republican Black Forum

Last week most of the Republican presidential candidates attended a forum moderated by Tavis Smiley at Morgan State University in Baltimore. The Democrats had attended a similar forum earlier this year. This debate was unique in that none of the four leading Republicans attended, with each citing "scheduling conflicts." Four empty podiums stood on stage in their (dis)honor. Much has been written about the absences of Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, and John McCain, so this post won't go into that. Instead, I'd like to focus a bit more on what I observed from the candidates who actually did participate.

Before going any further, I want to commend Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Ron Paul, and newcomer Alan Keyes for at least giving the forum a chance and attempting to deliver their message to a potentially hostile crowd. It is no secret that Blacks tend to vote Democratic by about an 8 to 1 ratio. Defenders of the absent candidates often cite this statistic before saying "Blacks would never vote for us anyway, so why bother?"

Yes, that may be the easy way to rationalize blowing off the most politically powerful minority voting bloc in America, but here's why that line of thinking is wrong. Republicans seem to think that they have to "win" the Black vote, as in win a majority of the Black vote. But let's get real. That's not going to happen for many, many years. A Republican doesn't have to "win" the Black vote in order to win more elections; they often only have to "do better" with the Black vote in order to tip more elections in their favor. Winning 25% of the Black vote may be enough to win a close race, while winning only the usual 15% will keep you practicing your concession speeches. And this is what a lot of Republicans seem to overlook. But then again, maybe the candidates and strategists who use this "we'll never 'win' the Black vote" line simply don't want to try and maybe don't even care. Black voters pick up on rhetoric like this just as much as they pick up on the candidates who shun them, as the four leading candidates did.

People talk about Rudy Giuliani's appeal to moderates, Fred Thompson's appeal to Southerners, and Mitt Romney's appeal to evangelicals. However, you don't hear much about a candidate's appeal to Blacks, at least on the Republican side of the field. The Democratic Party does not have a monopoly on Blacks' votes at all, as many Blacks feel the Democrats take their votes for granted. So there's a huge opportunity here for a Republican who is willing to do a bit of work first.

Anyway, as I watched the debate, I made a few observations. Even though I may criticize these candidates, the fact that they at least showed up makes me have far more respect for them than the candidates with the "scheduling conflicts." Anyway, here are my thoughts:

1. Duncan Hunter kept using the word barrio, which is the Spanish equivalent of "the hood" or "the ghetto." I think Hunter was trying to show that he had some knowledge of "the lingo" used in "minority" communities. I'll give him credit for that. But at the same time, it seemed like he was either trying too hard or was genuinely clueless about which word he should use to describe "where minorities live." How would a roomful of Southerners feel if someone like John Kerry said "Howdy!" with a New York accent? Why should it be any different here? I think a smarter choice for Hunter would have simply been "Black communities" or "Black neighborhoods" or even "lower income neighborhoods." There's no need to get all fancy with the terminology. Don't be so afraid of being politically correct. Just talk! Hunter's awkward remarks illustrate the trepidation that exists among many Republicans who sincerely would like to extend an olive branch to Black voters, but really aren't sure how to go about doing so.

2. If the Alan Keyes of 2007 is the same as the Alan Keyes of 2004, then that explains why Barack Obama may not be sufficiently versed in the lore of national politics. Keyes was Obama's opponent in the 2004 Illinois Senate race. I listened to Keyes during the debate last week and tried to maintain an open mind. While he spoke with great force and passion, I could see how he'd register as an asterisk in most polls. In other words, Alan Keyes was and is a very weak candidate. For example, at the start of the debate Keyes said that the absence of the four main Republican candidates was not necessarily an affront to the Black community. I'm sure that went over well with the audience. Anyway, the point is, has Obama truly been tested on the national stage? I'm not talking about voting records, daily news cycles, and fundraising. I'm talking about running a strong campaign against a strong challenger for a federal office. Running up the score against someone like Alan Keyes does not count.

3. Blacks have more in common with religious conservatives than at first glance. Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback won lots of applause from the crowd when they talked about the importance of strong families and traditional values. So many Blacks grew up in one-parent homes or homes where both parents spend so little time at home with their children because of work. Time spent away from the home is time spent away from their children, who then have more time to get mixed up with the wrong crowd. Black voters get this.

4. Libertarianism has some degree of palatability among Blacks when it is phrased in a way that shows its relevance to the Black community. Ron Paul consistently received cheers and strong applause after almost every time he took the microphone. His libertarian stance regarding the "War on Drugs" clearly resonated with many of the voters in the audience. The way he was able to tie in government inefficiency, the failure of this endeavor, and how it disproportionately affects Blacks was a masterstroke that demonstrated a high degree of familiarity with this issue beyond the usual "let's build more prisons" or "let's bolster enforcement" cliches.

5. Blacks are just as angry about illegal immigration as White Republicans are. Tom Tancredo illustrated how illegal aliens were driving down wages for everyone, including Blacks with blue collar jobs. Tancredo was not using illegal aliens (read Mexicans) as a convenient scapegoat, but the crux of his argument cannot be denied. Strains on government services and increased crime are not the only issues impacted by illegal aliens; how they take lower paying jobs and decrease wages affects lower income families particularly hard. Are Democrats on the wrong side of illegal immigration?

6. Don't ever judge a book by its cover. I do not have any official statistics regarding the attendance of the forum. However, when the camera panned to the audience, I noticed a lot of Whites in the seats. Even though this forum was primarily about "Black" issues, it seemed that about 25-35% of the people in the audience were White. And because this debate was on PBS (instead of BET), there were surely many more Whites watching the debate from their own homes. Republicans who were weak-kneed about entering the Black lions' den were probably pleasantly surprised that the crowd was not nearly as hostile as they may have anticipated. This just goes to show that political opportunity is everywhere if you're willing to take a chance.

7. There is a wing of the Republican Party that does not believe racism is an issue today. Tom Tancredo refused to go along with the other candidates who partially attributed issues of Black unemployment, Black imprisonment, and Black poverty to racism. Tancredo instead blamed failing schools, failing communities, and failing homes with poor values for the plight of so many Blacks. While his argument has some degree of credence, comments such as these cause Tancredo and his political brethren to represent the wing of the Republican Party that Blacks think of when they say "they don't care about us."

8. Mike Huckabee is probably the single most dangerous Republican candidate in the field. I cannot understand why people continue to talk about him only as vice presidential material. Huckabee is a talented speaker, is right on almost all the issues conservatives hold dear, and could attract increased support from Blacks and moderates because he does not come across as a hardcore partisan even though he is most definitely a part of the conservative religious right. Huckabee was able to deftly strike the right balance between acknowledging racism and showing how poor Blacks had a lot in common with poor Whites. His answer regarding the death penalty was very moving, as his thoughtfulness provided a nice contrast from capital punishment advocates who simply say "those people deserve to die for their heinous crimes." If I were a Democrat, I would be very, very afraid of this candidate because I think he could put more blue states in play than Giuliani could while keeping the red states red. In light of all the frustration among evangelical voters regarding their "top four" candidates, Romney and Thompson in particular should be very worried about Huckabee's potential strength.

To me, these eight lessons and observations provided far more news than the fact that the "leading" candidates were "unable" to attend. It will be interesting to see if any of these candidates try to follow up with Black voters by campaigning in their neighborhoods and churches in the future. Even though it may seem daunting at first, I think they'd be pleasantly surprised.

5 comment(s):

Sam said...

Since you're talking about the latest Smiley debate, I thought you might appreciate this story of mine about the Democratic one.

Silence Dogood said...

"Defenders of the absent candidates often cite this statistic before saying 'Blacks would never vote for us anyway, so why bother?'"

I have never really understood this reasoning, other than read it as a "hey, I am too lazy to care, but that would be kind of offensive, so let me give you this as a placating reason why I won't listen to your concerns instead."

If Republicans really believe this tag line, then this reminds me of a waiter who was a character in a book and he pre-supposed that college students were bad tippers and that families were good tippers hence he shunned college kids and gave them horrible service and treated families very well and his self fulfilling prophecy came true...by dint of his own efforts. You hit the nail on the head with the fact that what Republicans really need to win close elections is just do better with black voters, not necessarily win. To magnify that even more, consider that electorally what a Democrat needs to do to win the presidential election is win all the "blue states" and peel off a few "red states" from within the 'big L' created from the northern mid-west winding down all the way through moder day Dixie. Note the bottom half of this "L" has some of the largest African American populations by percentage in the country. The difference between a Republican winning and losing those states, and the white house, could very well come down to a very small number of votes. As you astutely noted, getting a percentage of the black vote in the low to mid 20's vs. the low to mid teens could make all the difference.

On a paralell note, Sen. Claire McCakill's razor thin victory this past year came in large part because she didn't cede the usually highly conservative, highly Republican rural parts of the state to her opponent. Instead she went out there and made the effort, and was able to deflate the former Senator's margin of victor in those strong holds 'just enough' to come through with the win on election day. Despite the fact that black voters traditionally vote prodominanatly dem, I find it odd (or perhaps telling) the repubs, traditionally, just yawn and say "well they're not going to vote for me anyway, why bother?" Good Post 7-10. Sorry for the wordy post.

oso diablo said...

found your blog through a link on Mike Huckabee's site. Read through all your prior posts that relate to Huckabee, and i must say, this is very well written analysis. keep up the good work!

Anthony Palmer said...

Silence Dogood,

Thanks again for the great comment. Claire McCaskill is a perfect example of a Democrat who "gets it" with rural voters the way a Republican should "get it" with Blacks. There was no way McCaskill would snatch the majority of rural voters' votes from Jim Talent. But she did well enough to eke out a narrow victory. So that extra legwork she did in the rural counties made all the difference between winning and losing.

Jim Webb of Virginia was another good example of this.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader. Keep the comments coming!



Thanks for your comment. I have a lot of respect for Huckabee even though I don't agree with him on a lot of the issues. Having said that, if he were the Republican nominee, I would have to seriously consider voting for him because I respect the fact that he approaches politics like a gentleman rather than someone merely trying to one-up the opposition.

By all means, keep coming back! I am especially interested in what conservatives and Republicans have to say about my content here, as I seem to draw a more left-of-center audience.

Thanks for reading The 7-10!



Thanks for your comment as well! I read your story and am interested in knowing how you became a consultant for Dennis Kucinich. I actually had a chance to meet him and his wife at the first Democratic debate in Orangeburg back in April. What did you have to do to break into the inside of the political bubble?

Anthony Palmer said...

Silence Dogood (again),

I just ran across this story in the Politico about Democrats and winning over enough White males. Here's the money quote that gets at what I was talking about in my original post:

"A more powerful what-if [regarding the 2000 and 2004 election outcomes] is to imagine that Democratic nominees had succeeded in narrowing the white male gap to even the low 20s instead of the mid-20s. Both Kerry and Gore would have won easily."

From the low 20s to the mid 20s! That's all it takes!

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.