Remember, the South Has Black Voters, Too

It's easy to forget, given the way the GOP and the media have ignored African Americans down South.

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In the Gulf Coast town of Lafayette, La., Tuesday night, Rick Santorum boasted of winning the Mississippi and Alabama presidential primaries and flatly dismissed doubts that his improbable bid could match Mitt Romney's well-financed machine. "This is a grassroots campaign," Santorum told supporters, adding, "Who would have ever thought, in the age of media we have in this country today, that ordinary folks across the country can defy the odds day in, day out?"

Judging from the Republicans' efforts during the last few days on the campaign trail, the "ordinary folks" are almost always white. Even as the candidates campaigned in Southern states like Mississippi, one of the blackest (pdf) states in the union (with African Americans making up 38 percent of residents), they seemed to avoid courting African Americans. It's as if the Grand Old Party is speaking to the Old South -- not the current region that's teeming with newly arrived black, white, Latino and Asian-American professionals.

The reverse migration of blacks down South has accelerated in the last decade. Any smart business-school professor would warn the GOP that it's missing the demographic trend lines -- and sealing the party's fate. Republicans aren't talking to blacks. "It's like they've ceded black voters," one Obama campaign aide told me this week.

What they're focusing on is the current lay of the land, demographically speaking. According to exit polls, about 93 percent of voters in Alabama's Republican primary were white, and just 2 percent were black. More than two-thirds were age 45 or older, and interestingly, 24 percent identified themselves as politically independent.

In Mississippi, nearly 97 percent of Republican-primary participants were white, and just 2 percent were black. Nearly 71 percent identified themselves as "very" or "somewhat" conservative.

Much of the media can't see beyond these facts to ponder what's in store for the GOP down South going forward. A front-page New York Times story Monday admirably assessed the South's political mood, except for one glaring oversight: No one, it seems, bothered to ask about the region's nonwhite voters.

"Indeed," wrote the Times correspondent, "the primaries represent a rather neat slicing of the Southern electorate at the moment." Not exactly. It's as if we've accepted the idea that the Republican Party is for whites -- and the Democratic Party is for everyone else.

Maybe it shouldn't be that surprising that Republicans aren't campaigning to gain black voters. We've been fleeing the party since the 1960s (pdf), and Republican-led efforts to curtail voting rights don't help widen the party's appeal.

Also, there's good reason to believe that many blacks will remain loyal to the country's first African-American president -- although it's worth being skeptical about whether we'll show up at the polls at 2008's historic levels. Already, the Obama campaign has signed key members of the Congressional Black Caucus to speak on the president's behalf in their districts. "It's not something we're taking for granted," the campaign aide told me.

It's worth noting that Santorum is campaigning in Puerto Rico, which has a Republican primary scheduled for next Tuesday. Meanwhile, the rest of the Republican candidates could take a few lessons from Newt Gingrich, who, in Alabama on Tuesday night, had the sense to surround himself with a few people of color.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM