ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith spoke on Wednesday at Vanderbilt University. In his remarks, he offered a rebuke to African Americans' strong voting alliance with Democrats. Here's part of what Smith had to say:
What I dream is that for one election, just one, every black person in America vote Republican....
Black folks in America are telling one party, ‘We don’t give a damn about you.’ They’re telling the other party, ‘You’ve got our vote.’ Therefore, you have labeled yourself ‘disenfranchised’ because one party knows they’ve got you under their thumb. The other party knows they’ll never get you and nobody comes to address your interest.
Okay, so there's a lot going on there. Let's start by noting what Smith is right about.
It is true that African Americans have been the most reliably Democratic voting bloc going back at least three decades. I looked through all exit polls dating back to 1976 at the Roper Center's Public Opinion Archives, and here's what it looks like in terms of the black vote:
The best any Republican has done among black voters in the last three decades is Gerald Ford's 17 percent way back in 1976. In three out of the last four presidential elections, the Republican nominee hasn't broken into double digits with black voters. And while many people ascribe that recent dominance to the presence of the first black president in the White House, the average black vote share the GOP nominee has won in the last 10 election is 10.3 percent.
The longer look at how Republican presidential candidates have fared with black voters makes clear that the erosion in support began long before Barack Obama ever considered running for president.
Smith is less correct in saying that Republicans have never tried to address African Americans' voting interests. Ken Mehlman, during his time as chairman of the Republican National Committee when George W. Bush was president, renounced the so-called "Southern strategy" employed by President Richard Nixon that aimed to play on whites' fears of a growing black population to drive them to the GOP. Said Mehlman at a speech in front of the NAACP in Milwaukee in 2005:
"By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
Mehlman spent much of his time as chairman trying to change the perception of the party as unfriendly to black voters, but he struggled mightily to succeed. While Bush went from winning 9 percent of the black vote in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004, that effort largely fizzled once Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee in 2008.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has picked up the mantle from Mehlman, insisting -- as he prepares to run for president in 2016 -- that the Republican Party can be a home for black voters. Paul has spoken out repeatedly about the need for criminal justice reform, and he traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to meet with black leaders in that community.
“If Republicans have a clue and do this and go out and ask every African-American for their vote, I think we can transform an election in one cycle," Paul told Politico's Mike Allen last October. “That doesn’t mean that we get to a majority of African-American votes in one cycle. But I think there is fully a third of the African-American vote that is open to much of the message, because much of what the Democrats has offered hasn’t worked.”
Smith, undoubtedly, would agree with Paul's sentiment since it's an echo of his own. But, as Nia-Malika Henderson noted in this space a few months back, expressing the desire to win black votes and actually, you know, winning them are very different things. Wrote Nia:
The depths that Republican candidates have sunk to in terms of black support suggests that a radically new approach is needed. Paul gets points for refusing to give up on any segment of the electorate. But, saying he will compete for the black vote is one thing. Actually doing it is another -- and Paul's shown little convincing evidence for why he can do that.
"Radically new approach" is the key to the analysis above. If Republicans want to begin to compete for the black vote again, it's hard to imagine that a single cycle turnaround -- as Paul suggests -- is even remotely possible. And, while Smith is clearly suggesting something -- all African Americans vote for the 2016 GOP nominee -- that he knows won't happen, the broader problem his comment exposes is this: Black voters, over the course of the past few decades, have become more and more convinced that the Republican Party is not concerned about their views and, in some cases, is actively working against the community's best interests.
What Smith fails to realize is that votes for president are rarely symbolic. People vote for the candidate or the party they believe will look out for them and make it most possible for them to succeed. Black voters don't believe the GOP is that for them, and one election -- no matter who Republicans nominate -- won't change that. What's needed is a long-term commitment to small electoral growth based on policies that appeal to black voters and that begin to change perceptions of what it means to be a Republican.