Frederick Douglass remarked that “the Republican Party is the deck, all else is the sea.” It was the Republican Party, after all, that had been organized in 1854 to prevent the extension of slavery. It was Abraham Lincoln, a Republican president, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. And it was the Radical Republicans during Reconstruction who issued the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, outlawing slavery and granting citizenship and voting rights to blacks. Based on this history, and the fact that Republicans captured nearly all of the national black vote until 1936 (when the fruits of the New Deal were beginning to be realized), it may at first seem odd that no Republican presidential candidate has received more than 15 percent of the national black vote since Richard Nixon received 35 percent in 1960.
But the GOP’S abandonment of the black vote was forecast by Barry Goldwater as early as 1961: “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 or 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” The ducks were found in the South — whites disillusioned with Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights liberalism. Blacks were considered inconsequential to the primary goal. “Obviously, the GOP can build a winning coalition without Negro votes,” prophesied Kevin Phillips in 1969 in The Emerging Republican Majority.
The “Southern strategy” has been used by every Republican presidential candidate since 1964 and will no doubt be used in 1992. The result has been a boon for the GOP in presidential elections. (Though the same can’t be said for the House and Senate. If Republican Senate candidates had gotten just 20 percent of the black vote in 1986, for example, they would have maintained their majority.) In terms of the black/GOP relationship, however, the “Southern strategy” would very likely find Frederick Douglass casting Republicans out to sea.
Now the Republican Party has decided it wants blacks back, on board. Lee Atwater, upon becoming party chairman in 1989, declared in The New York Times that “making blacks voters welcome in the Republican Party is my pre-eminent goal.” So Atwater created the Outreach division of the RNC. One of its main tasks was candidate recruitment. It was believed that black voters would need to see black Republican elected officials to convince them to switch parties. The necessity of such an effort was clear: just 76 of the 7,300 black elected officials in the country are Republicans, and in state legislatures, the main breeding ground for higher office, only three of the 439 blacks are Republicans.
The recruitment itself was largely successful: three black Republicans ran for winnable seats in 1990, and Gary Franks from Connecticut became the first black Republican to serve in the House since Oscar DePriest of Chicago departed in 1935. (Ed Brooke, a liberal Republican, represented Massachusetts in the Senate from 1966 to 1978.) Outreach, however, was unable to increase significantly the Republican black vote. Apparently it would take more than a few new elected black officials to bring black voters back to the GOP.
Yet Republicans responded with more of the same. Last March, as part of an RNC reorganization, Outreach was subsumed under the newly created Office of Political Coalitions, which also reaches out to Hispanics, Asians, Eastern Europeans, labor, and the disabled. RNC Communications Director B. J. Cooper explains that attention to the needs of black voters had been “institutionalized within the RNC” and that now they would receive increased day-to-day attention.
Although Cooper says recruitment efforts have not decreased, the mainspring of the GOP’s black strategy seems to have become consumed by focus group reports produced by the Nathan Group, a black-owned polling firm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A confidential report issued to the RNC in March 1989 recommended, among other things, that President Bush “meet with the congressional Black Caucus, for the sole purposes of listening, and showing his sensitivity to black issues and rapport.” Bush met with the CBC on May 23, 1989. Nathan issued another confidential report to the RNC this past February, which reiterated the recommendation that the president meet with the CBC. On June 25 Bush did just that. The February report also recommended that Bush attend “significant black events, such as speaking at major black institutions like Hampton University.” On May 12 Bush delivered the commencement address at (surprise) Hampton University.
Nathan’s overall approach rests on what its February report describes as “a tenacious plan that provides RESPECT and RECOGNITION to black Americans. The RNC must look for every opportunity to say to black Americans, you are ‘somebody to the Republican Party.’” Bush attempts to pursue this by consistently attending “black” events (forty in 1989 alone) and meeting frequently with black leadership groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League.
To some extent this strategy seems to have paid off: Bush received just 12 percent of the national black vote in 1988 and opposed the Democrat-sponsored civil rights acts of 1990 and 1991, yet an August ABC News/ Washington Post poll found 46 percent of non-whites approved his handling of the presidency. In March, just after the war, the figure was 77 percent.
No one’s predicting, however, that these approval ratings will translate into a significant number of votes. The modern-day GOP has scored some minor successes in recruiting black candidates — and the Thomas nomination may provide for the first time a platform for black conservative ideas. But Republicans have still failed to articulate to blacks more fully why it’s a better home for them than the Democratic Party.
This article originally ran in the September 30, 1991 issue of the magazine.