One of the more frustrating aspects of racial politics in America is the way in which vast, variegated groups come to be defined as monoliths. For example, I’m an Asian American, a South Asian American, a person of eastern Bengali descent, and a Brooklyn Nets fan. Though I’m not religiously observant, the Islamic religious tradition was an important part of my upbringing, and it’s drawn me closer to the views of orthodox Christians and Jews on more than a few social issues. I’m a free-market enthusiast who believes in the safety net, and I’m an urban-dwelling nondriver who’d like to cut the federal tax on gasoline. Like most people, including most people of color, I embrace a mishmash of identities and I have lots of half-baked, contradictory views. Because of the magazines I read and the ZIP code in which I live, I’m the kind of voter a conservative candidate might easily overlook. But the issues that matter most to me place me on the right, and I’m guessing that there are other misfits who might be willing to vote as I do if the right candidate were to make the right pitch.
Republicans need to start chasing the voters I think of as my fellow ethnic contrarians—the blacks, Asians, Latinos, and American Indians who zag when other members of these megagroups zig. I call this strategy No Vote Left Behind. To appreciate why this strategy is so important to the GOP’s hopes of winning the White House, it’s helpful to understand the rising importance of the black electorate.
The Democratic Party is not quite a majority-minority coalition. But it’s closer than you might think. In the 2012 presidential election, an overwhelming 88 percent majority of Mitt Romney’s vote came from non-Hispanic whites. By contrast, only 56 percent of President Obama’s votes came from non-Hispanic whites, while 24 percent came from blacks and 14 percent from Latinos. Black voters turned out at a higher rate than non-Hispanic white voters in 2012, as they did in 2008. Will that be the case in 2016? For Democrats, this is a vitally important question, and it is a big part of why the party’s leading presidential candidates are being forced to take the politics of racial justice very seriously. If Democrats fail to motivate black voters, and if they fail to secure the near-universal support among black voters they secured in 2012 and 2008, their candidate’s path to the White House will suddenly get much narrower.
Republicans face a parallel challenge. In 2012, Romney won 59 percent of the non-Hispanic white vote. You can imagine a GOP candidate maintaining Romney’s share of the white vote, or even improving upon it slightly. But increasing it by a substantial margin will be challenging, and increasing it in ways that have the side effect of further reducing Republican support among Latinos (a dismal 27 percent in 2012) or blacks (an even more dismal 6 percent) might put victory even further out of reach.
This is where the contrarians come in. Conservatives have long believed that there are many black Americans who vote for Democrats in presidential elections despite holding conservative positions on issues like abortion, gun rights, and taxes. But rather than devote meaningful resources to identifying these voters and persuading them to back the GOP, conservatives have largely neglected them. When Republicans have reached out to black voters in recent years, they’ve often done so by focusing on an issue like criminal justice reform, as in the case of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. Whatever the merits of criminal justice reform, however, it is not obvious that black voters who consider it their top priority will ever be inclined to back Republicans. Embracing criminal justice reform might be worthwhile on its own terms, but it is foolish to think of it as a linchpin of black outreach.
Why is that? Consider the political impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has garnered enormous media attention over the past year. There is reason to believe that the movement has already had a meaningful effect on public opinion. Earlier this month Gallup released a survey that found that the share of whites satisfied with how black Americans are treated in the United States has fallen from 67 percent in 2013 to 53 percent in 2015. The share of blacks who feel the same way fell from 47 percent to 33 percent over the same period. Given this shift, it should come as no surprise that Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns have responded to Black Lives Matter, and that they’ve both taken its brand of racial pessimism seriously. Conservatives, even ones like Paul, who use progressive language to make the case for reducing the country’s prison population, are not well-positioned to win the hearts and minds of these disaffected voters.
But what about the 33 percent of blacks who take the contrarian view that their community is treated satisfactorily in the United States? These women and men have been rendered almost entirely invisible.
I’m hesitant to make any sweeping claims about this subset of voters. Perhaps some of these respondents believe that the challenges facing black Americans are not primarily a reflection of racial bias, and that what we really need to secure black progress is Sanders-style socialism. But some others might be pro-business moderates in the Bill Clinton mold, who find racial pessimism counterproductive. Indeed, it could be that the rise of Black Lives Matter has hardened this view among some blacks. We can’t know more without a serious effort to understand these voters, and that serious effort won’t be forthcoming as long as we pretend that these voters don’t exist.
The failure to appreciate that as many as a third of black voters take an essentially optimistic view of racial progress in the United States is particularly harmful to conservatives, as this is the universe of voters that could, in theory, be open to the right Republican candidate. Because Republicans are starting from such a low base—John McCain won 4 percent of the black vote in 2008 and Mitt Romney won 6 percent of the black vote in 2012—even modest inroads into this constituency could make an enormous difference for the GOP.
To make these inroads, however, Republicans have to dispel the perception that they are hostile to black progress. In January the Pew Research Center surveyed the views of blacks and whites on a variety of questions. It found that while 46 percent of whites felt that government should do “a lot” to reduce poverty, 78 percent of black voters felt the same way. Only 8 percent of black respondents felt that government should do little or nothing to reduce poverty (compared with 17 percent of whites). Similarly, while 79 percent of blacks felt that “a lot” more needs to be done to achieve racial equality in the U.S., 12 percent of blacks believed that somewhat more needs to be done and 8 percent believed that little or nothing needs to be done. There is a large minority of blacks reporting that the government should do less than “a lot” to reduce poverty and who feel the same way about achieving racial equality, yet Republican candidates are struggling to get close to a double-digit share of the black vote.
I would argue that instead of embracing the Black Lives Matter critique of American society, conservatives should endeavor to connect with black voters who believe that society should take “some” action to reduce poverty and to achieve racial equality. Rather than embrace the libertarian condemnation of the prison state, conservatives could offer a more balanced approach that emphasizes the importance of crime control while also calling for curbs on excessive punishment. Republicans should also embrace more pragmatic policies on taxes and safety net programs. Instead of talking about the flat tax, Republicans should emphasize middle-class tax relief. Rather than talk about “phasing out” Medicare, they should talk about shoring up safety net programs to ensure that they can meet the needs of future generations. There appears to be a nontrivial share of black voters who are open to a center-right message. Winning them over will mean decontaminating a GOP brand that many blacks associate with extremism.
The logic of appealing to contrarians extends well beyond black voters. In 2004, for example, Latino evangelicals were far more likely than other Latinos to back George W. Bush’s re-election, though as Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has observed, they also have a more favorable view of government than your typical GOP voter, so might be receptive to a less uncompromisingly hard-right candidate. Similarly, U.S.-born Latinos are quite a bit more conservative on issues like immigration than foreign-born Latinos, and they’re also more likely to vote—they’re another promising target for a 2016 GOP candidate. Recognizing these cleavages can mean the difference between winning 27 percent of Latino voters (Romney’s showing in 2012) and something much closer to 44 percent (George W. Bush’s share in 2004). In a similar vein, Asian American evangelicals appear to be more winnable than their Buddhist and Muslim counterparts. According to one survey from the left-wing Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 96 percent of Bangladeshi Americans backed Obama in the last presidential election. Why shouldn’t the next GOP candidate win, say, 5 percent? Republicans can’t afford to leave any votes on the table.