As Herman Cain’s campaign seemingly winds down, it is worth examining one of his oft-repeated claims: that he could win a third of the African-American vote.
It’s an important assertion, with critical long-term implications for the Republican coalition. No GOP presidential candidate has accomplished this since before LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, none has come close. In 1972, Richard Nixon managed to win 18 percent of the African-American vote, and in 1976 Jerry Ford won 16 percent. Since then, the Republican share has fluctuated between 8 and 12 percent, with the important exception of 2008, when John McCain received just 4 percent.
Returning to pre-Civil Rights Act levels of support among African-American voters has been a hope of many Republican strategists for quite some time. The reason is simple: It would seriously hamstring Democrats in presidential races, as well as in Senate races in certain states. For example, had McCain won a third of the African-American vote in 2008, he would have carried North Carolina, Indiana, Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Nebraska’s 2nd District probably would have gone Republican as well. In other words, even in a perfect storm for Democrats, they would have managed only a 278-260 win in the Electoral College. Bush would have defeated John Kerry by a 337-200 margin with one-third of the African-American vote, and his Electoral College win would not have been in doubt in 2000. In fact, he also would have won the popular vote handily that year.
Cain’s claim that he can win a sizeable chunk of the black vote has a reasonable theoretical basis. Unlike white and, to a lesser extent, Latino voters, African-American voters do not sort their votes neatly by ideology. In 2004, the last time two white candidates competed for the presidency, George W. Bush received 5 percent of the vote from the 30 percent of African American voters who considered themselves liberals, 9 percent of the 50 percent who considered themselves moderate, and a paltry 26 percent of the vote from the 20 percent of African Americans who consider themselves conservative. If Bush has performed as well among moderate and conservative African-American voters as he performed, respectively, among Latino voters with those ideological views, he would have won . . . 35 percent of the African-American vote.
So there is, at least in theory, a large opportunity for the GOP among conservative and moderate African-American voters. The reality, however, is that Republicans have been trying to break off these voters for decades, with little success. This does not augur well for the future. Jack Kemp spent a large amount of time on the campaign trail in 1996 talking to African-American audiences and promoting his “empowerment agenda,” but the Dole/Kemp ticket received just 12 percent of the African-American vote. George W. Bush actively courted conservative African-Americans in 2000 — this was the strategic rationale behind key Bush domestic initiatives such as aid to faith-based charities. He received 8 percent of the African-American vote.
Even the few instances we have of African-American Republican candidates running in races that were high-profile enough to justify exit polling offer little hope for Cain’s quest. There has been only one recent instance of an African-American Republican running against an African-American Democrat for statewide office: Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate race against Alan Keyes. While Keyes was far from the ideal Republican candidate in any sense, it is worth noting that he received only 8 percent of the African-American vote, to Obama’s 92 percent.
Even African-American Republicans who run against white Democrats struggle to capture more than the “traditional” Republican share of the African-American vote. The 2006 elections present an interesting year where three high-profile African-American Republicans ran statewide races against white Democrats: Ken Blackwell in the Ohio gubernatorial race, Lynn Swann in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, and Michael Steele in the Maryland Senate race. The following chart gives the Republican share of the African-American vote in all of the statewide races that year where African-Americans made up at least 5 percent of the electorate: