Sometimes interesting data can come from the strangest places.
The Washington Post published the results of a poll, in which 1020 people were asked, essentially, why they thought African-American voters were so much more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. The poll was a free-form answer, in which there was no multiple choice answer given; people could say whatever they wanted to. Here is their summary of the poll:
This isn’t the greatest poll in the world–or at least, based on this data, I’m somewhat skeptical of their methodology. Some of the categories into which they are placing responses seem pretty vague and overlapping.
And yet, let’s assume that the gist of the results are correct, what does this poll tell us? First of all, it tells us that Republicans, Independents, and Democrats tend to have reasonably similar viewpoints. A plurality of all groups believe that African American voters, more so than other voters, care about issues related to poverty and both sides believe that the Democrats do a better job of appealing to African American voters on those issues.
Please note that both Democrats and Republicans are prejudiced in the same way, in that respect. Of course, in real life most African Americans are not actually poor; in 2010, 38% of African Americans were poor (compared with 35% of Hispanics and 12% of Whites)–but that means, of course, that 62% of African Americans are NOT poor–and I’m guessing that African American voters (like most voters) tend to be richer, older, and better educated than the African American population as a whole. In other words, to assume that black voters care about poor people more than white voters is either to assume that a) the average black voter is more selfless, or b) that most black voters are themselves poor. Both are racial stereotypes. According to this poll, for a plurality of members of both parties, when they see an African American they are likely to think “poor”.
So what is the difference between the parties? How they talk about poverty. Democrats tend to talk about poverty like it is something that happens to you (“victims of poverty”); Republicans tend to talk about poverty as if it were an avoidable condition, if one were smart enough or a hard enough worker. For Democrats, welfare is government help for people who need help; for Republicans, welfare is government subsidization of bad habits. These are generalizations, of course, but look at the poll results. The plurality answer for Republicans was something to the effect of “African Americans vote Democrat because Democrats given them something for nothing.” The plurality answer for Democrats was something to the effect of “African Americans vote Democrat because Democrats care more about poor people.” Again, both answers have a racially prejudiced undertone.
But based on this data, can we say anything about why African Americans vote Democrat and not Republican? Actually, I believe we can. See, political decisions, despite what many theorists like to believe, aren’t actually made by rational calculation. They are made based on instinct and bias–and a lot of that comes from culture and society. We vote based on how the people around us are voting, based on who makes us feel comfortable and gives us confidence, based on who “feels our pain.” The message that Democrats are sending, according to this poll, is “we want to help you”. It may be a patronizing message, but it’s welcoming. The message that Republicans are sending, according to this poll, is “get a job.” Certainly less patronizing, but also less welcoming.
So how can Republicans be more welcoming to African American voters? I don’t think the answer lies in co-opting the Democratic attitude. And I think the “promote high-profile black leaders” is short-sighted, at best. Instead, I think the GOP needs to confront the underlying stereotype of “black = poor”. After all, look at the Hispanic vote. The poverty rate among Hispanic Americans is virtually identical to the poverty rate among African Americans. And sure, Hispanic voters vote for Democrats 2-1, sure; but African Americans vote for Democrats 9-1. Why does the GOP do better among Hispanics? Because for many Republicans, being Hispanic doesn’t mean being poor. It may mean “immigrant”, and that carries it’s own set of biases. But when Republicans look at South Florida Cubans, in particular, they don’t see “poor”; they see “hard-working immigrant”. And that makes all the difference.