On Super Tuesday, Republican voters get a chance to stand up for the candidate they believe in. But do black voters feel they have the same range of choices as white voters? African Americans are a bit of a paradox: arguably socially conservative on the issues, but loyal to the Democratic Party.
"I think it's a phenomenon that's interestingly linked to the African-American community," said Republican strategist Ron Christie, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush. "Many self-described liberals or progressives are actually very socially conservative once they break the issues down one by one."
He adds, "If you look at my family, my folks are progressives — except when you start delving into same-sex marriage or premarital sex or you deal with religion. They're not nearly as liberal as they think they are, but they would describe themselves that way."
With 10 states and 419 delegates in play (18 additional superdelegates are in play but not tied to the results), Super Tuesday marks a turning point in the presidential race. GOP pollsters are doing the election math, but so are the president's supporters. A surprisingly volatile Republican primary has caused some Democrats to not-so-secretly cheer on Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who both poll less favorably against President Obama than front-runner Mitt Romney.
Santorum, in particular, has fought his campaign on the grounds that he's a deeper social conservative than anyone else in the race. His ability to blend personal and political narrative is undisputed, though not necessarily in the ways he'd like. Santorum is a conservative Catholic who said that President Obama espoused "phony theology," and that when he read President John F. Kennedy's speech in support of separation of church and state, he "almost threw up."
His candidacy is a perfect example of the different strains of conservatism and how they play with black voters. On the one hand, many African Americans affirm conservative positions on issues including abortion, in part because of the strong influence of black churches.
But few would endorse the ways that Santorum, Gingrich and Romney have doubled down on the rhetoric of government dependency, a not-so-subtle Southern strategy. (Gingrich even coined a new phrase, the "food stamp president.") Black voters who are social conservatives are often given a menu of candidates who use coded racial rhetoric to court white voters.
Given that, could black social conservatives play a crucial role in the 2012 election? Let's do a little math. In 2008, 96 percent of black voters chose Barack Obama, versus 4 percent for John McCain. In 2004, by comparison, 11 percent of African Americans voted Republican. The rush of pride and good will that helped usher Obama into office has dulled for some voters over the past four economically rocky years.
Although the president leads all GOP challengers in the current polls and still has an enormously high favorability rating from black voters, the impact of the black vote in 2012 will depend not only on whom voters select but also on the turnout. One way the Republican Party could gain in 2012 versus 2008 is if black social conservatives who voted for President Obama in 2008 peel away and return to the GOP fold. Another way is if people conflicted over their choices (or disappointed in them) simply don't vote.
Christie says that "there is a strategy to appeal to African Americans and people of color in the GOP, but we haven't done a great job since the first election of George W. Bush. You look at faith-based initiatives and No Child Left Behind. Those were platforms that would appeal to all Republicans in general but African Americans in particular. Since he left we've dropped the ball." Christie believes that Santorum could appeal to a black-empowerment agenda if he honed a message that appealed to voters looking for a hand up.
Part of the messaging of a "hand up versus a handout" depends on the speaker, and part depends on the ear of the voters. There's little question that many black voters hear something different in the talk about an entitlement society that has peppered the Republican race. (Just watch the video of Juan Williams sparring with Gingrich at a seminal January debate.)
White social conservatives are the most reliable core voting base the Republican Party has. That base doesn't seem to penalize candidates who use racial code. Many black voters simply don't trust candidates who employ the Southern strategy to represent their economic and civil rights interests.
But let's turn back to faith. Religion is supposed to offer finality, or at least a duality between true and false. If your religion says that contraception is wrong, then as an article of faith, you should abstain from using it, right?
Follow that road a little further, however, and you find human behavior and faith teachings diverge. For example, Catholicism advocates against contraception, but the vast majority of American Catholics support its use. According to the Guttmacher Institute (which is affiliated with Planned Parenthood), 98 percent of Catholic women who have had sex at some time used birth control.
During the recent political wrangling over whether religious-affiliated employers should be required to cover birth control, the difference in opinion between Catholics and non-Catholics was minor. Fifty-nine percent of all Americans thought the government mandate was fair; 57 percent of Catholics felt that way.
And in the past weeks, the White House pushed for a mandate on contraception and later struck a compromise. Just as the issue was fading away, Rush Limbaugh called a law student who championed the president's original plan a "prostitute" and a "slut." He later apologized.
So the issues are freighted and charged, but people have many reasons for putting their faith teachings or conservative values in the context of their daily lives and larger struggles like civil rights. Yet Christie thinks the opportunity to change the party game is there for the GOP. "If you look at the previous election, the president won over 95 percent of the black vote. He's polling 85 to 87 percent now. That means 6 or 7 percent of the black vote could be out of play [for the president]. Given how close the race could be, that could make a difference."
Farai Chideya is an award-winning author and journalist and a spring 2012 fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Follow her on Twitter.