At some point in the near future, Republicans will need more of the minority vote to win the presidency. While in 2016 they may get by with white voters alone, every year that strategy becomes harder to execute. Winning a bigger share of a shrinking demographic is not the way forward, so the party has no choice but to racially diversify.
Although many conservatives have written on this topic, few have provided details: How should minority voters be reached? Which minorities: Africans-Americans, Asians, or Hispanics? What issues, if any, should Republicans compromise on to win their votes? How much compromise is necessary?
These decisions and tradeoffs cannot be made intelligently without a mental framework. Republicans need a way to analyze which efforts are worth pursuing, what metrics should be used to determine success, and how those efforts will help move the party to the desired state. The Republican Party needs a racial diversity strategy.
Criteria for Success: Realism and Effectiveness
Any Republican diversity strategy must meet at least two requirements. First, it must account for the existing contours of the party, and recognize that major deviations will provoke resistance. Because executing any diversity strategy will be difficult, it is important to minimize disruption to the present conservative coalition.
A strategy that calls for a path to citizenship will be more difficult to implement than one that does not. Similarly, a strategy that downplays social issues will raise more tensions than one that does not. In short, Republican diversity efforts must be realistic.
A Republican diversity strategy should also be effective: it must help Republicans win the presidency. There is no point in pursuing a new segment of voters if it does not. Increasing the Right’s share of the Hispanic vote may be the key to victory. But it is also possible that African-Americans or Asians matter more in the Electoral College. These types of decisions can in principle be resolved empirically. Because the presidency is so important, evidence must guide a Republican diversity strategy.
Why Immigration for Votes Doesn’t Work
Right now, Republican diversity efforts can be classified in two camps. One explicitly considers race and is driven by conservative elites. It reduces to a single idea: Hispanics avoid the Republican Party primarily because of its stance on immigration. Moderating on immigration by offering a path to citizenship would allow Republicans to capture enough Hispanic votes to win presidential elections.
The line of reasoning has been ably refuted elsewhere. Two points should be stressed: First, only once in history has a Republican candidate received 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Second, demographic changes and the geographic concentration of Hispanics mean that in 2016 Republicans could win 49 percent of their vote and still lose the election! As Sean Trende and David Byler noted, Hispanic voters have a “limited electoral impact.”
Amnesty also contradicts the desires of a large fraction of Republican voters, whose preferences cannot and should not be ignored. So even if the basic argument were correct, it would require a staggering share of the Hispanic vote and also be opposed by a core Republican constituency. These two facts make the elites’ strategy both unrealistic and ineffective.
A Middle-Class Agenda Isn’t the Answer, Either
The second camp, occupied by Reformocons, avoids wrestling with race specifically. The Reformocon message is: Republicans should first work on building a middle-class agenda. If they do that well, minorities will vote Republican. There would be no need to worry about race, and definitely not Hispanics. This argument is powerful. Reformocon policies will probably appeal to many Americans, including racial minorities.
But there at two problems with this approach. First, the Reformocon agenda suffers from something Marco Rubio can relate to: it polls great in the general election but has problems in the primaries. Reformocon policies will not win over minorities if they can’t even win among Republican primary voters.
At some point, Republicans will probably embrace middle-class policies. But that shift may take decades to complete, if ever; and there’s a good chance that a watered-down Reformocon agenda will appeal less to minorities, and everyone else, than whatever the Democrats offer. For the near future, a full-throated Reformocon platform is no more realistic than one that is pro-amnesty. Both greatly disrupt the Republican coalition.
The second problem is that Reformocons explicitly ignore the racial dimensions of U.S. politics. Given how much racial strife runs through American history, it is unlikely that a few family-friendly tax credits will solve Republican deficiencies. On this, the Left is correct: race cannot be ignored in America. You have to confront it head-on. A Republican diversity strategy must do just that. The goal should be to permanently change the Republican coalition so it includes racial minorities.
With Blacks, Republicans Have Nowhere to Go But Up
As flawed as the elites’ prescription is, they have two things right. Republicans can’t avoid race, and it makes sense to go after a single racial group. They were just wrong about which race. Given the ideological makeup and geographic distribution of America’s minorities, Republicans would most benefit by focusing on African-American voters. Rather than attempting to replicate the Left’s rainbow coalition at once, a useful first step may be to create a durable black-and-white coalition.
Last November, Theodore Johnson rationalized the actions of the Mitt Romney canvassers who ignored him: “As a black guy, I couldn’t really fault the group’s practical decision. After all, why spend time and campaign resources on me when nine in ten blacks routinely vote for the Democratic presidential nominee and when the nation’s first black president was seeking reelection?” While the rest of Johnson’s essay should be commended, this analysis is wrong. It is precisely because African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic that Republicans should pursue them.
It is generally easier to grow market share when starting from nothing. Republicans received 4 percent of the black vote in 2008 and 6 percent in 2012. If Republicans made it their primary goal, they should be able to nominally improve on that total to get 10 percent. We know that outcome is possible because Republicans did it seven times in the eleven elections since 1972. It is reasonable to think that Republicans can do in 2016 what they have done repeatedly in the past. It’s not clear who decided 40-plus percent of the Latino vote would be easier to achieve than 10-plus percent of the African-American vote. But the evidence does not support that assertion.
The sensitivity of the Democratic electoral model to African-American voters is another reason Republicans should focus on them. Small gains can have a very large impact: merely reverting their vote to pre-Obama levels “wipes away” the Democratic electoral college advantage. Since so little African-American support is needed for Republicans to be competitive, it is unconscionable to ignore them. Black voters are also concentrated in states that, unlike Hispanic voters, can deliver the Electoral College to Republicans. An African-Americans-first diversity strategy therefore actually helps Republicans win.
The vague problem of how to get “minorities” to vote Republican can now be transformed into something concrete and actionable: determining how Republicans should win at least 10 percent of the black vote in the swing states Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Virginia. That’s it.
None of this should suggest that winning 10-15 percent of the black vote will be easy. It will not. But Republicans need minority voters and will be engaging in outreach of some form anyway, so they should focus on what yields the highest payoff.
Launch Republicans’ Racial Diversity Startup Right
This diversity strategy is admittedly not as uplifting as the Reformocons’ suggestion of trying to improve among all minorities. But this desired outcome may be achievable only if Republicans start with a single demographic. Consider a business analogy. Many entrepreneurs succeed because they target a niche, beachhead market and consciously ignore others. This approach allows them to expand and grow. Only after winning the beachhead market do they have the ability to sell elsewhere.
The Republican Party should follow a similar path because it is effectively a startup when it comes to racial diversity. It doesn’t have the resources, customer knowledge, or sales team to convince everyone, and will have a better chance of success if it concentrates on one minority group. As Republicans get used to addressing their concerns, it should be easier to do so for other minorities. Initially focusing on African-Americans is thus a plausible way Republicans can transition to a party that represents all races.
Malcolm X once observed that African-Americans are rarely asked to “contribute anything to other areas of thought and ideas [outside of race],” and no one seems to care “what they think about the problem of world health, or the space race to land men on the moon.”
Sadly, this observation still rings true. How often do working-class African-Americans get to comment on immigration reform? How many black Christians were asked their thoughts about gay marriage? Because many issues are often framed as white versus non-white, black opinions are neglected. Republican outreach can change this dynamic, and expose tensions in the Democratic coalition. Immigration and social issues are two areas where this tactic may be particularly effective.
Many Republican Themes Appeal to African-Americans
Elites may not like it, but immigration will remain a divisive issue for many years. While there may be ways to moderate on rhetoric, many Republicans are in fact opposed to both increased immigration and a path to citizenship. These stances are becoming a litmus test for conservatives.
Immigration is particularly important for working-class whites, a demographic Republicans must win to capture the White House. Any Republican candidate will therefore inevitably campaign on securing the border and helping American workers.
Since these themes will already be a part of Republican messaging, it makes sense to apply them to African-Americans. As Buzzfeed described in December, African-Americans are also hurt by America’s morally and intellectually bankrupt immigration system. Black Americans already have a latent distrust of cheap foreign labor. Republicans should at least try to take advantage of this common ground.
This outreach will hopefully reveal the divisions between pro-amnesty Democrats and many African-Americans, something that can only help Republicans. Unlike amnesty, this message will not anger a key conservative voting bloc. It may instead strengthen their commitment to vote Republican.
In addition to working-class whites, Republicans also need Christian social conservatives to win the White House. Republicans will definitely be cultivating their support and responding to their concerns. As they do so, Republicans should not forget that many black Americans fall in this category.
Because American evangelism is wrongly portrayed as purely white, the faith of millions of African-Americans ends up being obscured. Theologically serious black Christians are perhaps the most overlooked group in the culture wars. No one seems to wonder how faith guides black Christians. No one asked how they felt about the Hobby Lobby decision or when Vanderbilt University derecognized Christian student groups.
White secular liberals don’t seem to realize that the people they appear to hate the most—religious Christians—and the ones they need the most—black Americans—are the exact same people. White secular liberals who mock Christians are mocking the most important member of their own team.
Republicans can highlight this tension by forcing Democrats to solicit black opinions on faith and culture issues. When liberals compare Christian beliefs on marriage and sexuality to racism, Republicans should ask: what do black Americans think about that analogy? Black people are the most Christian Americans as well as victims of the worst racism in American history. Their voices cannot be ignored in these conversations.
How to Respect Black Americans
Republicans should stress that casually invoking racism trivializes the unique horrors of the black experience. Only black people endured 250 years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, decades of racist housing policy, and 4,000 lynchings. Perhaps except for Native Americans, no group in our history has suffered like black Americans have. Racism analogies should be as taboo as ones about the Holocaust. That message will surely resonate with many African-Americans. Remember: it only needs to resonate with about 10 percent of them to start having a big electoral impact.
In the passage referenced above, Malcolm X explained how he knew which journalists “respected [his] mind”: “They would invite my opinion on subjects off the race issue…We would sit around and talk about all kinds of things, current events and other things” (emphasis added). Republicans should exude this type of respect towards black Americans by engaging with them on these other things. Like so many of us, black Americans are religious parents worried about an increasingly secular culture; workers fearful about the future; entrepreneurs affected by marginal tax rates.
As much as African-Americans may care about topics like police brutality and affirmative action, it is profoundly disrespectful to believe that’s all they care about. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once noted, few black people “wake up thinking about the HIV rate, or go to bed thinking about the incarceration rate.” There is much more to black America than suffering, a fact our political discourse, and especially Democratic discourse, does not acknowledge. Republicans should acknowledge it. They should meaningfully address the worries black Americans share with all Americans.
Respect Doesn’t Mean Pandering
In this outreach, Republicans don’t always have to agree with African-Americans. The Right does not have to embrace affirmative action or the current form of the welfare state. When necessary, Republicans should just explain why they think their policies are better for everyone, black America included. Many will disagree, and that’s okay. If done properly, many will end up agreeing. Many already do. Mindless agreement is not respectful, and Republicans should shun that approach.
Republicans should instead recognize the immense diversity among African-Americans. If they comprised their own country, African-Americans would be one of the ten largest black countries on Earth. There are almost as many black Americans as black South Africans. Like members of any large group, black Americans have diverse views. Republicans should expect many African-Americans to agree with their policy agenda.
Black Americans may overwhelmingly vote Democratic, but they are not overwhelmingly liberal. Most are just moderate Democrats, and they often disagree with their party. The Democratic coalition requires that this ideological diversity be suppressed. Republicans can and should expose it.
Simply put, Republicans should treat black Americans like every political party in every democracy on Earth treats its citizens: try to identify potential supporters and pursue them relentlessly and unashamedly. Doing so would convey genuine, authentic respect.
Change, or Lose
For decades conservative intellectuals have promoted the idea that Republicans should reach out to African-Americans. But until now Republicans could win presidential elections without minorities of any kind. So they, somewhat understandably, have never really tried to. Since an increasingly brown country is rendering the previous electoral calculus obsolete, it is finally time to start taking action.
This essay presents one way for Republicans to begin the process. The specifics are less important than three key principles. First, conservatives need a racial diversity strategy rather than ad hoc tactics that depend on specific candidates or circumstances. Only a coherent strategy can help allocate scarce resources and identify how to move from the present state to the desired one.
Second, on both moral and practical grounds, the desires of the existing Republican coalition must be accounted for. Third, any suggested actions must empirically demonstrate how they would help Republicans win. Parties exist to win elections, and victory is the only metric that ultimately matters.
I believe these principles imply that Republicans should primarily focus on African-American voters. While this conclusion should be vigorously debated, it is worth highlighting a few closing facts.
Only one minority group is deeply, profoundly Christian. Only one has a large segment of people skeptical of both mass immigration and a path to citizenship. Only one will be receptive to outreach on these issues in a way that does not upset the current Republican base. Only one minority group has historically supported Republicans at levels they now need to win.
As the Republican Party looks to racially diversify, to me, at least, the choice is clear. It’s go black or go home.