Former Florida governor Jeb Bush made a weird comment during a town hall meeting in South Carolina on Thursday night. Responding to a question about how the Republican Party could win black votes, Bush said that "[o]ur message is one of hope and aspiration. It isn't one of division and get in line and we'll take care of you with free stuff."
The comment was odd in part because it echoed remarks made by Mitt Romney in 2012 that prompted a strong backlash. It's similar to Romney's famous "47 percent" remarks, but also, as our Sean Sullivan notes, is precisely the language Romney used at a separate fundraising event that year. Even if Bush thinks that the Democrats win votes by giving "free stuff" to black voters, it's not a smart thing to say.
But he also shouldn't think that, because there's no evidence that it's true.
1. More whites than blacks receive food stamps
It's not clear what "free stuff" Bush was referring to, but it's safe to assume that food stamps, properly known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is one of them. According to 2012 data, the plurality of SNAP households are white.
Black households are disproportionately represented, yes, but if the idea is that "free stuff" leads to votes, one would think that more white people would be spurred to vote Democratic as well.
But that's not the case. Exit poll data that we've looked at before shows that poor nonwhite voters — as measured by whether or not they've received a college degree — vote more heavily Democratic than nonwhite voters overall. But poor whites vote Republican — and more heavily Republican than all white voters. If anything, it's the Republicans, then, that are benefiting from the "free stuff" giveaways.
2. There's no relationship between SNAP use and votes
Except that there's no relationship between SNAP use and the results of elections. In February, we compared food stamp use in each congressional district in 2010 to the election results that year. It looks like this:
That blob? No correlation.
In South Carolina, where Bush was speaking, five of the seven congressional districts have a greater percentage of white households than black on food stamps, as of March of this year. All of them are represented by Republicans. Of the two where black households are a plurality, only one has a Democratic representative.
3. These aren't new programs since President Obama took office
The mentions of "free stuff" by Bush and Romney seem to be focused on the current political situation -- one in which Barack Obama has twice been elected president. It doesn't take a whole lot of analysis to figure out a reason that black voters might have turned out more heavily for Obama in 2008 and 2012 that doesn't involve government programs.
But, besides, if the argument is that black voters oppose Republicans because Democrats give them benefits, it neglects a whole lot of elections in which Republicans have won since those programs came into place.
Yes, the Affordable Care Act is new, but much of the new coverage under Obamacare is an expansion of Medicaid, which is 50 years old. There's the (rather grotesque) meme of the "Obamaphones" -- basically reduced-cost or free cell phones for poor Americans. But "Obamaphones" are really "Reaganphones," having been introduced in 1985. And food stamps themselves date back to the '60s.
Aha!, you might think. The '60s are when African Americans started voting Democratic! Well, about that.
4. Black support for Democrats coincided with civil rights actions
We looked at the growth in the Democratic vote among black Americans in July.
Shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, black identification as Democrats soared. But it had already leaped up before, in the late 1940s. That was largely apparently thanks to Harry Truman's push for a package of new civil rights protections in 1948. It was the party's decision to focus on civil rights -- and then its enactment of civil rights legislation -- that earned it the support of black voters.
Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty," which brought us Medicaid and food stamps, was concurrent with the Civil Rights Act -- in part because Johnson's aim was to improve the conditions of poor blacks as well as poor whites.
5. "Free stuff" is subjective
It's worth noting, too, that lots of people get "free stuff" from the government. Seniors get a lot of government-program support, but they vote more heavily Republican. (Even older non-white voters tend to vote less Democratic -- though not much less.)
Not to mention corporate tax breaks and so on. Corporations do spend money to ensure tax breaks, but it's safe to assume that in many cases the savings from tax breaks are far larger than the money spent lobbying Congress or contributing to campaigns. Call it "low-cost stuff."
Data aside, it's worth circling back to the original point. Even if Bush believes this, which he shouldn't, it's an incredibly poorly considered thing to say when running for president. There's no reason to think "free stuff" spurs Democratic victories -- but there's even less reason for a candidate to say that it does.