Thad Cochran is not the first Southern conservative to court the black vote

Catherine Walker marked her ballot at the William W. Blackburn Middle School polling place in Jackson, Miss.,Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Loren Collingwood is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California Riverside

Sen. Thad Cochran’s victory in the Mississippi Republican primary runoff this week shocked many political observers. Polls had indicated that his opponent, Chris McDaniel, had a lead going into the election. To win, however, Cochran’s campaign made the counterintuitive move of appealing to Mississippi’s African American — and largely Democratic — vote. Many political observers were surprised not only by Cochran’s calculated decision to court the black vote, but by African Americans’ willingness to support a staunch Republican. After all, party politics is more shaped by race in Mississippi than in any other state. From a political science perspective, Cochran’s campaign is also striking because it challenges long-held assumptions that the black vote is essentially captured by the Democratic Party, and that Republicans do not seriously bother courting African Americans because the latter will not vote for the former.

From a longer historical perspective however, Cochran’s political behavior is actually unsurprising. Over time, Southern white (and often conservative) candidates have often sought to expand the size of the electorate by incorporating black voters to increase their chances of victory. At the same time, white candidates’ desire to win the black vote has led to a moderation of racial policy positions during key periods in 20th-Century American history. My research suggests that between 1940 and 1970, white conservative candidates for governor and Senate in the U.S. South — politicians whose policies and ideologies would not make them friends to the increasingly enfranchised black South — often spent time courting the black vote. Over time, candidates increasingly presented themselves as racial moderates, especially as the percentage of registered blacks in their state increased.

Cochran’s campaign behavior of the last three weeks fits squarely into a pattern I call Cross-Racial Mobilization: the conscious mobilization of blocs of (usually minority) voters of one race by candidates of another race. From a historical perspective, white candidates are more likely to engage in cross-racial mobilization when several conditions are present: 1) There is a sizable bloc of minority voters in the electoral jurisdiction, 2) the hostility of the candidates’ white voters towards minorities is relatively minimal, 3) institutional barriers to the vote are minimal (e.g., no poll taxes, a relatively open primary system), 4) the candidates’ opponent has demonstrated hostility to the minority group, and 5) the election is competitive.

In Cochran’s primary race, all of these conditions were present (at least to some degree). Blacks make up a huge percentage of the Mississippi population and registered voters. But, because they are overwhelmingly Democratic, they have tended to play a limited role in GOP primary elections. Perhaps as a result, McDaniel felt free to support policies that were less inclusive for his future black constituents—in short, to out-flank Cochran on the right. However, because Mississippi’s primary election laws are relatively open, Democratic-leaning African Americans could penalize McDaniel by voting for Cochran, when inspired by Cochran to do so. In other words, institutional arrangements encouraged cross-racial mobilization. Finally, this primary race was extremely competitive. Clearly defined blocs of voters became essential to the overall result. When Cochran realized that he could expand the voting pool disproportionately to his advantage, it is no surprise that he did so.

It remains to be seen whether Cochran’s election is unique or whether this is the beginning of a new trend in southern politics. But one thing remains certain: As the American electorate becomes increasingly diverse, cross-racial coalitions and the centrality of ethnic politics will play a defining role in the conduct of elections. And if history is any guide, this cross-racial behavior may help to incorporate minority voters and pluralize power within the political system.

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