April 30, 2013

In his column on GOP immigration fears — namely, that Republicans will follow the path of 2007 and blow their chance at reform — Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins quotes a Republican strategist who warns that, sans reform, the GOP could alienate Hispanics like it has African Americans:

“We are really balanced here on a little precipice and if this, pardon the pun, goes south, we could be in very serious trouble,” said Republican media strategist Paul Wilson, citing the increasingly intense attacks on the immigration bill coming from the right. “If [the legislation] stalls or is killed off by conservatives, we could take the Hispanic community and turn them into the African-American community, where we get four percent on a good day…We could be a lost party for generations.” [Emphasis]

If the Republican National Committee’s much-discussed post-mortem of the 2012 presidential election is any indication, the GOP is focused on making inroads with three groups: Young people, women, and Latinos. Asian Americans come in for a mention, but it’s a small one. And other than a few asides, African Americans are nearly absent from the document. The “why” is not hard to understand — if there is such a thing as unanimous support, Barack Obama nearly won it from African Americans, who voted for him 20 to 1 in 2008 and 2012. Republicans may talk about outreach and nod in the direction of black communities, but for all practical purposes, they’ve given up. Wilson’s line reflects the conventional wisdom on black voters in GOP circles.

It’s wrong. John McCain and Mitt Romney were unique in that they won an unusually small portion of black voters. In previous elections, stretching back to 1976, Republicans were able to win between 10 and 14 percent of the African American vote. This doesn’t sound like much, and in an overwhelmingly white electorate, it isn’t. But over the last ten years, two things have happened — the electorate has become less white, and black turnout has grown, from 10 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004 to 13 percent in 2008 and 2012. And indeed, in last year’s election, blacks voted at a higher rate than any other racial group, including whites. Put another way, almost every eligible African American voter voted in last year’s election.

If blacks were dispersed throughout the country, or concentrated in a handful of blue states, this wouldn’t mean much. But large numbers of African Americans are concentrated in a handful of swing states—Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio—as well as states that could swing under the right circumstances, like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Indiana. To put this in the most straightforward way possible, black support is worth more in those states than comparable support from any other demographic group.

Obviously, you still need to win plenty of white voters. But high African American turnout — coupled with average white turnout — means that black voters have an outsized effect on the popular vote, relative to their percentage of the population. This gave Obama a great advantage in last year’s election. Essentially, he could win by substituting new black voters for lost white ones. And that’s what he did. His popular vote margin in Ohio, for example, can be explained solely by higher black turnout.

The flipside of this is that Republicans can greatly improve their position in presidential elections by just winning more black voters. Without near-unanimous support from African Americans, states like Virginia and Florida become much harder to win for Democrats, while North Carolina falls out of reach completely. And this is true even with a large advantage among Latino voters. Remember, for all the talk of their voting strength, Latinos are just 11 percent of all eligible voters despite being 17 percent of the population.

In terms of return on investment, it makes far more sense for Republicans to win back the black voters they lost over the last four years, than it does to make inroads with Hispanics. Put another way, if Mitt Romney had done as well as George W. Bush with black voters, he would be president. Neglecting black voters, antagonizing them with voter identification laws — this is a sure way to harm GOP chances for a comeback.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.