Experts: GOP needs 'sustained, committed effort' to win black voters from Democrats

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. is introduced by the Rev. Al Sharpton during the 25th annual National Action Network convention in New York, Thursday, April 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams may have a point when he warns African Americans against trusting politicians who emphasize racial issues and tell them what they want to hear, but experts say those voters will continue to support Democratic candidates unless Republicans give them a good reason to change their allegiance.

"Everything in America is not always about race," Williams said at the National Action Network convention Wednesday. Williams, the business manager for former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, complained that other speakers at the event had focused their comments so heavily on race.

He told WBFF Thursday that he found all of the talk of racism "offensive."

"Don't insult the black community by coming here today assuming the only issue they care about is race," he said. While race is a factor in many social problems, he argued that it is not the only factor.

Williams, speaking over a jeering crowd, urged African Americans to hold Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and others accountable and demand that they earn their vote.

Appearing at the same event on Wednesday, Clinton received what the New York Times called a "tepid response" from black activists with her plans to overhaul the criminal justice system and fight environmental injustice.

The Clintons have faced criticism recently for the consequences of the crime and welfare reforms passed during Bill Clinton's presidency in the 1990s, leading to some awkward moments on the campaign trail. Despite the controversy, polls show no sign of African American support for Clinton wavering.

Central to Williams' complaint is the notion that candidates have not done enough to "earn" African American votes, but experts on race and politics say black voters have good reasons to throw their support behind Democrats in general and Hillary Clinton in particular.

Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, said Clinton has several advantages over Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. One is simple name recognition and familiarity, which benefited her greatly early in the campaign.

"Perspectives on the Clinton administration factor heavily," she said. Black voters with favorable views of Bill Clinton's policies and the 1990s economy are likely to support his wife, while those who are skeptical of his policies on crime and welfare might lean toward Sanders.

"Clinton would actually probably be more palatable to black voters who identify as moderate to conservative," she said. Sanders' vision of democratic socialism may be too liberal for them.

She also noted historical tensions between progressives who frame social problems in term of class and those who view them in relation to race. Sanders' message may not resonate as much with those who see race as a larger factor than class.

Other experts also pointed to the legacy of Bill Clinton as the "first black president" and the long relationship that Bill and Hillary Clinton have with the African American community.

"The sense that they have common values, they have a common history in the civil rights struggle" is a large part of it, said John Kenneth White, professor of politics at Catholic University. Fairly or not, that feeling of empathy and history is lacking with Sanders, despite his own involvement in the civil rights movement.

According Shauna Shames, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University, Clinton is seen as having supported black civil rights throughout her career and demonstrating "that she really believes that black lives matter."

"That Bernie's experience as a senator has been with such a white state is a concern for African Americans," she added.

Although experts agree that politicians sometimes oversimplify issues by tying them to race, they find Williams' framing of the situation as equally problematic.

"On the one hand, what you have is some political elites, usually on the right, saying not everything is about race," said Efren Perez, associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "That may be true, but you also can't wish away race and can't turn a blind eye to race."

The politics of the last eight years and the pushback against President Barack Obama's policy agenda have been suffused with race, according to Perez. Many issues in the national spotlight like criminal justice and police violence have kept race a prominent factor.

Shames cautioned that denying the role of race plays into a long history of white denial, but she said there are ways to talk about other forms of injustice in society while also acknowledging the damage racism has done over hundreds of years.

Political parties are constantly at risk of losing even their most fervent supporters if they ignore them, and that is true of the black vote. Experts note that African American voters trended toward the Republican Party in the decades after the Civil War. It was only with the New Deal and the civil rights movement that the black vote started solidifying behind Democrats because of policies that benefited them.

"Once an elected party gets into office, it can't realistically please all of the supporters who got it there in the first place," Perez said.

In a two-party system, however, the Democrats only need to please black voters more than Republicans do. The Democratic Party and President Obama may not do everything the African American community wanted, but their policies are often seen as having positive implications for blacks and other minorities.

"You can never take anybody's vote for granted," White said. "You also have to keep asking for their vote. You've got to maintain that party identification."

African Americans are not a monolithic ideological block, as demonstrated by the success of conservatives like Williams and Carson, but the vast majority of them will almost surely back the Democratic candidate in November.

"The stark political reality is that the black vote is pretty solidified in this country," Shames said, but she added that Democratic politicians have a moral obligation beyond politics to actually help those communities once they are in power.

Gillespie described the phenomenon as "Democratic electoral capture." That certainty may lead Democratic candidates to spend less time campaigning in black communities, creating the impression that their policy interests are being ignored.

Black Republicans like Herman Cain and Allen West have attempted to capitalize on that feeling for years, Gillespie said, but they have failed to overcome the perception that their own policy platform is not progressive enough on racial issues.

The Republican Party also has an image problem. Every time black voters hear about some county GOP chairman or even a presidential candidate saying something either subtly or overtly racist, it reinforces their negative perception of the whole party.

It would take a serious, long-term effort from Republicans to peel away significant numbers of black voters from the Democrats, but experts see little evidence the GOP has any inclination toward that.

"That's a very tough nut to crack," Perez said.

"It takes a much more sustained, committed effort by more than a few elites, more than a few voices."

One way he has seen Republicans approach this is by placing black conservatives in positions of power like former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

"A black voter sees Michael Steele and says, yeah he's black...but not black like me," Perez said. Such moves make moderate Republicans more comfortable with the openness of their own party, but they do very little to sway minority voters.

According to White, it is possible that a younger generation of black voters would be open to the Republican Party's message because so much time has passed since the civil rights era. It would require ongoing engagement with their communities and offering new ideas, not just putting black candidates on the ballot.

"There doesn't seem to be any interest in doing that as far as I can tell," he said.

At the convention, Williams was also critical of black voters who support Democratic politicians in cities like Baltimore, Washington, and Detroit even though their communities continue to suffer and struggle. Experts say it is too simplistic to lay the blame for their troubles at the feet of the Democratic Party, though.

Shames observed that cities like Camden, New Jersey have suffered from state-level policies that encouraged businesses to move away and cut funding for social programs helping poor families. Urban poverty is extremely difficult to address, and neither the conservative inclination toward privatization nor the liberal tendency to throw public money at failing cities is solving the problems.

"We need solutions that are not just about race," she said.

Gillespie pointed to similar underlying structural challenges, and she also noted wide variation in the political approaches and agendas of Democratic mayors.

"Cities don't exist without a lot of involvement from the state," she said. Factors outside local control like state funding levels and the condition of the national economy can impact vulnerable minority communities.

"He may have a point," White said of the idea that Democratic politicians have not done enough, "but that's only half the battle. The other half is to engage in a sustained way with the African American community."

Unless that happens, even most moderate and conservative African American voters will vote for the Democrat on the ballot in 2016 and beyond.

"It's a long logical leap from being dissatisfied with the Democratic Party to defecting to the Republican Party," Gillespie said.

Editor's note: Armstrong Williams has some business relationships with Sinclair Broadcast Group, INC.

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