We keep hearing the same question asked about Donald Trump this year as we did about Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush and every other Republican presidential candidate in living memory: what percentage of the black vote will he get? In Trump’s case I’ve heard numbers ranging from zero to eight percent. These figures always seem to range in the single digits, with only the most sunny estimates approaching the teens. Gone are the glory days of Eisenhower drawing a stunning 39 percent in 1956. Perhaps the better question isn’t how much, but rather… why?
Theodore R. Johnson examines the question at the Washington Post this week, providing a stroll through 20th century American election history and some useful insight.
Today’s lopsided black vote for the Democratic Party is often tied to 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act. This was certainly a significant event, but the story starts earlier.
Previous research has found that when the parties’ positions on civil rights were essentially indistinguishable between 1920 and the mid-1940s, blacks’ party loyalties was also split. In fact, the NAACP declared in 1926 that, “Our political salvation and our social survival lie in our absolute independence of party allegiance in politics …”
But by the mid-1930s, blacks voted increasingly for Democrats — even though their party identification didn’t change — because of the Democratic Party’s progressive economic and civil rights policies, such as the extension of New Deal programs to blacks and the desegregation of the military in the late 1940s.
As I said, there’s plenty of historical perspective there and it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the subject, but most of it doesn’t really answer the question of why the trend remains in place today. We’ve had this discussion here before and it’s the same as the questions I’ve raised about the Hispanic vote. What gives?
Any number of social clues would suggest that conservative positions would be a far better fit for some segment of each racial demographic group, probably on par with the breakdown among white voters. Both Hispanic and black communities in many parts of the country are heavily invested in the churches as a foundation of the social structure. (Though trends seem to indicate that Hispanics skew more Catholic while larger black congregations tend to be Protestant.) There is opposition to abortion in most of these churches. Particularly in surveys of black voters, gay marriage is widely frowned upon. Shouldn’t there be some approximation of liberal vs conservative leanings in the electorate across racial lines?
Further, it seems safe to assume that results matter to everyone, regardless of skin color. We’re largely talking about presidential elections right now, but on the local level the Democrats have been an unmitigated disaster for communities of color in large urban centers. Violent crime, poverty, unemployment… the numbers in the inner cities in majority minority communities are almost uniformly worse than in majority white communities. And yet the denizens of these neighborhoods keep electing one Democrat after another into office. Why would anyone keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results?
If you’re expecting some sort of magical answer from me you won’t get it. There’s a temptation to follow Johnson’s example and say that black voters simply love Democrats because they prioritize civil rights issues and the extension of New Deal programs to the exclusion of all other voting considerations. But that sells the voters short in my opinion. In fact, it’s rather insulting to black voters to suggest such a thing. Surely there’s more to it than that, but I’ll confess that I’m at as a loss as to what it might be.