Herman Cain’s turn atop the polls in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination captured the attention of journalists and pundits and sparked excitement among grass-roots conservative activists. But is it really possible that he — a black man who overcame poverty in the segregated South to become a wealthy entrepreneur and front-runner in the GOP race — would be the one to bring African American voters back to their original political home?
Cain seems to think so. In a mailer sent to Iowa voters recently, the candidate says “as a descendent of slaves I can lead the Republican party to victory by garnering a large share of the black vote, something that has not been done since Dwight Eisenhower garnered 41 percent of the black vote in 1956.”
It is a proposition that was quickly dismissed by political scholars and analysts, including some members of Cain’s party. Although he has done better than any other black Republican presidential candidate in terms of attracting support, few believe Cain could snare a sizable number of black voters in a general election, especially against President Obama.
“If he’s talking about 41 percent of black voters in the Republican primary, he might be right,” Michael Dawson, an African American political science professor at the University of Chicago, said with a chuckle. But in a general election against President Obama, who got 95 percent of the black vote in 2008 and remains popular among African Americans, Dawson said Cain “would be lucky to get 10 percent” of the black vote.
Besides being remarkable for its optimistic electoral calculation, Cain’s claim is unusual because he has made no special effort to appeal directly to black voters. If anything, the candidate has offended and outraged some of them with some of his comments and behavior.
Early on in his campaign, Cain, 65, described his own black experience as “authentic” compared with Obama’s biracial heritage and upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia. He was roundly condemned by Democrats and liberals for saying black people had been “brainwashed” into sticking with the Democratic Party. He has at times appeared to be dismissive of the notion that racism still exists and has defended white tea party activists, who are among his most ardent backers, against accusations that they are racist.
J.D. Gordon, spokesman for the Cain campaign, said the candidate stands by his prediction that he can woo black voters in a general election.
“He does think he can win a substantial percentage of the black vote — he’s confident he can do that,” Gordon said. “And the reason he thinks that way is the anecdotal information he’s gotten in his travels around the country, the number of black people who have come up to him and the comments they’ve made. I’ve seen that traveling with him in Atlanta and other places.”
Raynard Jackson, a longtime Republican Party activist and consultant who is also African American, was incredulous.
He questioned whether Cain had African Americans in senior positions on his staff to help develop a strategy to win the black vote.
“I have never, ever seen him with a black person on the campaign other than that security guy,” Jackson said.
The security guy, Chris Jones, is no longer with the campaign, Gordon said, because Cain now is protected by the Secret Service. He said campaign manager Mark Block has a black female assistant and that there are African Americans working on the campaign in lower-level positions. “And we’re still growing,” he added.
Jackson said Cain appears to be following in the path of previous GOP presidential candidates who fail to do the groundwork necessary to woo black voters.
“Is he going to do the same thing that the party in general does? They will send a white guy into the black community and then wonder why their message doesn’t resonate,” Jackson said.
Tara Wall, an African American conservative political analyst and a former senior adviser to the Republican National Committee, is not so dismissive. She argues it wouldn’t take anywhere near the 41 percent of the black vote referenced in Cain’s campaign literature for Republican candidates to be more competitive with Democrats. (Actually, Eisenhower got 39 percent of the black vote in 1956.)
White Republican candidates have polled in double digits among black voters in some statewide races, she noted, and Michael Steele, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 2006, got 22 percent of the black vote.
“I wouldn’t take what [Cain’s] saying too flippantly,” Wall said.
Wall, who is working on a documentary called “Souled Out” about African Americans’ relationship with the Republican Party, said Cain was correct to chastise black voters, because “we as a people, 95 percent of us, go lock step and hand our votes over to one party election after election.
“I don’t think we’ve given him a chance from jump street,” she said referring to black voters’ attitudes. “It’s a shared responsibility. You can’t say he’s not doing enough to reach out to black folks, and then you turn on the radio and they’re calling him an Oreo and they don’t know anything about him.”
Gordon said Cain was not suggesting in his campaign literature that black people would vote for him out a sense of racial solidarity because, “as he’s said many times, it’s not about color, it’s about content.”
“People like his ideas regardless of his color. He thinks a lot of people in the black community can relate to him because of his personal story growing up in the segregated South and climbing the corporate ladder,” Gordon said.
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, argues that as the Republican Party grows more white and conservative, it represents the interests of most black people less.
“The fact of the matter is, there are no more savvy voters in the country than African American voters, and they’re not interested in any candidate who is not promising them more and better jobs, more and better education, more and better health care and an agenda that aims to deal with the historic racism in the country,” Bositis said. “None of those things are being offered by the Republicans, including Herman Cain.”
He also said the political landscape was vastly different in the period when Eisenhower got a commanding share of the black vote. For one, many African Americans still favored the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and it was the Democratic Party that was dominated by Southern segregationists. Bositis also noted that in 1956, before the Voting Rights Act was passed, the percentage of black voters was low, particularly in the Southern states, many of which made it extremely difficult for them to vote. Furthermore, he said, Eisenhower was a moderate Republican.
Eisenhower implemented the desegregation of the military, following through on an executive order that had been issued but not enforced by the administration of his predecessor, Harry S. Truman.
Eisenhower’s election appeared to be the high-water mark for black voters casting ballots for Republican presidential candidates. Richard Nixon polled 32 percent among black voters in his unsuccessful 1960 bid, but four years later, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater got a mere 6 percent of the black vote against President Lyndon B. Johnson. During the past 30 years, no Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 12 percent of the black vote.
Dawson said Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, “was quite popular among African Americans” when he was being courted to run for president in 1996. “It’s conceivable he could have gotten 30 to 40 percent of the black vote. But he was one of the most liberal Republicans on the national scene in the last 15 to 20 years, so someone as conservative as Mr. Cain, to garner that much of the black vote, I don’t see that happening in the near future.”