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.
Second, the GOP can establish a connection with black voters by promoting traditional values, but to win their votes, the party will need to offer reassurances that smaller government and more reliance on the free market economy does not mean government will abandon civil rights protections and economic safety nets. This is where historical context is paramount. Black Americans’ introduction to market forces and small government came by way of slavery. Thanks to the resolve of remarkable men and women, it was the government that secured our rights, not the free market or even the Christian sensibilities of the social conservatives. But encouraging black Americans to entrust our fate to goodwill and markets is wasted energy.
When the government refused to protect its black citizens, lynching happened. When it abstained from ensuring liberty for blacks, Jim Crow happened. When the government was improperly regulated with little oversight, the Tuskegee experiment and housing fraud happened. Black Americans trust a larger government role because that was how our rights were secured. So the GOP’s message of reduced government is tone-deaf to the black experience in America.
Yet it remains true that even if Republicans did all of the above perfectly, they would not come close to winning even half the black vote. But they don’t have to. All that’s needed is 1 in 5 black votes for the GOP to consistently win general elections. In a paper titled “Blacks and the Republican Party: The 20 Percent Solution,” the authors test the theory of former Republican National Committee Chairman Lee Atwater that claimed 20 percent of the black vote would make the GOP the majority party. The soundness of the math is evinced in gubernatorial races in deep-red states like Haley Barbour’s in Mississippi, Mike Huckabee’s in Arkansas and even George W. Bush’s in Texas—each won more than 20 percent of the black vote on the way to victory at the ballot box. The authors found that the 20 percent was probably correct but the Republican Party was not postured to achieve it.
Social conservatism is the answer.
As the 2014 midterm elections approach, the nation will witness the power of the black electorate. And with the 2016 presidential election looming, the black electorate is poised to be the fashionable choice for intense demographic engagement. By connecting to older black Americans through shared socially conservative views, the GOP can truly contend for the black vote in a general election for the first time in decades.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. He's been a military professor at the Naval War College and was a 2011-2012 White House fellow. Follow him on Twitter.
Theodore R. Johnson III is a former White House fellow. His writing focuses on race, society and politics. Follow him on Twitter.