The black electorate is back en vogue. After saving Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran from defeat in the Republican primary just months after propelling Democrat Terry McAuliffe to Virginia’s governorship, black America has demonstrated that it indeed can determine the outcome of elections. More important, perhaps, is the subtext of these results: The black vote is demonstrably in play.
In recent weeks, the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has argued that Southern black voters will determine whether or not the GOP will control the next Congress. And the Times’ Jeremy Peters has reported on the outreach efforts of prominent Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul.
Since it already has an iron grip on the black vote, the Democratic Party has a strategy to simply increase turnout. In response, the GOP can either suppress the black vote, which is a goal so immoral and un-American that it will result in increased turnout for Democrats, or it can undertake the large project of actuating a contended black electorate.
Republicans have been roundly—and rightly—disparaged for their poor and inconsistent efforts to attract black voters. But what usually follows such criticism is nebulous advice about clear messaging and community engagement. This sort of counsel is good-natured, but so unclear and imprecise that it is almost wholly unhelpful.
A more fruitful approach would be for the GOP to turn to a component of the party platform that some believe is passé: social conservatism. When packaged with other government and economic-reform policies, this ideology could be the key to garnering support from just enough of the black electorate to become the nation’s majority party.
Social conservatism is sometimes considered nothing more than a euphemism for opponents of abortion and and same-sex marriage, but social conservatism is fundamentally about traditional family values, the role of religion, the importance of community, and the intergenerational transfer of morals and beliefs. These are principles integral to the American culture—and a recent Gallup poll confirms that more Americans identify as socially conservative.
Among black Americans, however, social conservatism is more pronounced. Research highlighted by professors Sherri Wallace and Angela Lewis in the paper “Compassionate Conservatism and African Americans” shows that though black voters routinely support the Democratic Party, black Americans identify with conservatives on a wide range of social issues. The Pew Research Center found that black Americans are the most religious race or ethnicity in the nation, whether the measure is church attendance, frequency of prayer or reliance on religion in daily life. Black Americans are the least accepting of changes to the traditional family structure—there’s a reason President Barack Obama’s and both Bill and Hillary Clinton’s views on gay marriage took so long to evolve. Black parents have the most socially conservative views about premarital sex and abstinence (pdf). Even the prevalence of homeschooling, a sacred cow of the socially conservative crowd, doubled (pdf) among black families between 2007 and 2011.
These trends especially hold true for older black Americans, who also possess the majority of black wealth and income. And a number of statistics come together to show why this should be music to Republican ears. There are around 10 million more voting-age black Americans over 35 than under, accounting for two-thirds of the voting population. The 2012 black voter-participation rate (pdf)—now the highest in the nation—was driven by black voters over 35, whereas under-25 black voter participation dropped significantly. In short, older, socially conservative black Americans are voting more, and younger, liberal-leaning black voters are voting less.
Why, then, do black Americans vote for Democrats in such large numbers? The answer is fairly straightforward: black Americans are pro-government. The Washington Post categorizes many black Americans as “God and government” Democrats who are essentially social conservatives who vote for larger government because, on the whole, they experience more economic distress. Black Americans, especially, look to the government to create jobs, provide financial safety nets in times of need and protect hard-won civil rights gains.
Taken together, the message to Republicans should be clear. But if recent history is any indication, it still needs a more explicit explanation, and there are two primary takeaways. First, though social conservatism resonates with many black voters, attempting to win elections with campaign promises of policy and legislation that turn conservative morals into legal mandates is a losing endeavor. The socially conservative black man who is underemployed isn’t nearly as concerned with legalizing school prayer as he is with finding employment and increasing his income. The socially conservative black woman is less worried about passing laws on marriage than ensuring that schools are safe and academically sound.