Perry Bacon: Does Michael Steele Really Think He Can Win Black Votes In the Age of Obama?


Newly-elected Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele flew to Los Angeles over the weekend for The Tavis Smiley Festival (better known as the annual “State of the Black Union” conference)—the latest sign he is determined to tout the GOP to every black audience he can. He had pledged this during his campaign for the job, but I suspect the members of the almost all-white Republican National Committee did not expect their chairman to express his desire for “off the hook” strategies to woo young voters and look to reach voters in “urban-suburban hip-hop settings” as he told the WASHINGTON TIMES in a colorful if somewhat bizarre interview a few days ago.

Is this good political strategy? Yes, but not for the obvious reason. With Obama in the White House, it’s hard to see the GOP making any gains in the black vote before say 2014, the next election in which Obama might not be a major factor. And in a pure numbers sense, it is unnecessary for victory; the problem for McCain in 2008 was that he lost ground among independents, Latinos, young voters and blacks compared to Bush’s performance in 2004. Gaining ground among those first three could get a presidential Republican candidate to victory even if Democrats win 96% of the black vote, as Obama did in November.


On the other hand, there is a good political strategy in actively trying to win black votes even if you don’t actually do so, the same way Obama is smart to keep asking congressional Republicans for their support even if he never gets it, because voters like attempts at bi-partisanship. I haven’t seen polling data on this, but my suspicion is that for people under 40 in particular who have grown up in a more racially-blended society, voting for a party that doesn’t seem diverse would be uncomfortable, even if they agree with Republican policy on key issues.

In short, at least trying to woo black voters might be integral for Republicans to get back the independents and white voters under 40 who they really need to win elections. Steele seems very sincere about wooing black voters, but we’ll get a real sense of his strategy (and how other Republicans view it) when this year’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

I have no doubt Steele will be making a speech at Hampton, but would the Republicans spend money trying to get votes in Newark?