Republican Quest for African-American Votes

Two of the most reliable predictors of voting behavior are at war with one another. How can the apparent contradiction be explained?

The National Survey of Religion and Politics by the University of Akron compared church attendance, as a rough proxy for religiosity, with voting patterns. They found that those who attend church or temple more than once a week voted for George Bush in 2000 by a margin of 68% to 32%. Those who never attended church cast their votes for Al Gore 60% to 35%. Now the survey clearly shows that there are people who attend church regularly that voted for Gore and people who refrain from formal religious observances who voted for Bush. However, the trend is unmistakable. The more likely one is to attend religious services and for whom presumably religion provides normative guidance were more comfortable voting for Bush. Perhaps the Democratic Party’s positions in favor of abortion, gay rights, and the party’s close connection with those in Hollywood associated with cultural decadence and decline make many religious people uncomfortable.

On the other hand, African-Americans have significantly higher church attendance rates than white Americans yet vote almost exclusively Democratic. In 2000, Gore received 90% of the votes of African-Americans and that result is unlikely to change in 2004. Democrats have been the party of government, and government programs for the disadvantaged disproportionately aid black Americans. It is, therefore, not surprising that Democrats are able to garner a majority of votes of African-Americans, but the 90% figure seems irrational. It is hard to imagine how similar unanimity on any other issue in any other community could be achieved. It is hard to get 90% of any group to even agree on the time of day.

African-Americans may benefit from government programs, but they also suffer disproportionately from the burdens of terrible public schools in the inner cities. Democrats are so beholden to teachers’ unions that they are unwilling to grant black Americans the freedom to opt out of failing government-run schools. In African-American communities, local churches often provide social services. African-Americans, therefore, would benefit from President Bush’s faith-based initiative where public services delivered at churches could be partially financed by the government. Moreover, socially conservative black Americans who attend church regularly might be uncomfortable with the Democrats’ absolute commitment to even late-term abortions. Reason would suggest that these factors alone should be able to swing more than 10% of African-American voters to Bush.

Ralph Nadler, a Republican consultant, has completed a study which might offer some explanation for this phenomenon. Black Americans are radically ill-informed about Republicans. Amazingly, 69% of black Americans believed that Democrats were more committed to “protecting the rights of the unborn” than Republicans and Republicans were more likely to raise taxes than Democrats. Not even John Kerry would believe those positions.

This problem may be indirectly related to the splintering of Americans’ viewing and listening habits into little niches. There has been an explosion in the number of cable stations and alternative media outlets. Where all Americans used to watch a few broadcast stations so everyone received their news from common sources, different groups have different viewing habits. African-Americans watch Black Entertainment Television and listen to radio stations that cater to black Americans. These media have been largely co-oped by Democrats who can help define the political culture of African-Americans. In no small measure, according to Nadler, Republican neglect is at least as much of responsible for this as Democratic cultural imperialism. If Republicans are ever to claim a reasonable share of African-American voters, they are going to have to find ways bring their message to black media. The advantages of doing so are hard to exaggerate. If Republicans can even expand the number of votes from African-Americans they attract to 15% as opposed to 10%, it can have a dramatic effect on close elections. So long as black Americans are taken for granted by Democrats and have little voice in the Republican Party, the issues of most concern to this community will likely be neglected.

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