BOSTON—As political speeches go, President Bush’s direct appeal to black voters last week before the National Urban League was exceptional. Without pandering or compromising his conservative principles, he asked blacks to take a critical look at what the Democratic Party and its policies have done for them lately. But the GOP could stand to take a hard look at its own black outreach efforts, which on the whole are laughably ineffective. If allowing your opponent to define you is a cardinal sin in politics, Republicans have some serious atoning to do.
Blacks opposed Mr. Bush in 2000 by a margin of more than 9 to 1, which means that Al Gore bested even President Clinton’s share of the black vote in 1996. John Kerry will accept the Democratic nomination here tomorrow with polls showing that blacks prefer him by 8 to 1 over the president. And while those ratios are an embarrassment to the Party of Lincoln, or should be, what causes them is no mystery.
Following the 2002 midterm elections, Richard Nadler, a Republican consultant, headed an exhaustive study of what’s behind the black voter’s fierce fealty to Democrats. “The Democrats coordinate a brilliant, intensive media campaign, particularly on black radio,” says Mr. Nadler. “The frequency of ads [leading up to an election] is somewhere in the vicinity of four an hour during drive time. This is on urban contemporary radio stations, primarily. If you’re white, you just have no idea how potent a medium this is.”
It’s extremely difficult for political strategists to make assumptions about white listening habits. So they typically don’t make any. But the story is different with respect to blacks, who are one of the easiest voting groups to target. In places like Dallas, New York, LA, Memphis, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta and a dozen other metropolitan markets, it’s not uncommon for radio stations that serve black residents to reach two-thirds of them in a given week. One-quarter of black voters watch Black Entertainment Television daily; more than 60% tune in at least weekly.
Democratic operatives saturate this minority media with a campaign of negativity and misinformation that would make Michael Moore blush. Republicans are cross-burners who want to put a semiautomatic in little Jamal’s hands and take money way from little LaWanda’s public school. For fun on weekends, Republicans drag black men to their death behind pickup trucks with Confederate flags attached to the rear bumper. Republicans want to racially profile blacks, incarcerate them in high numbers and disenfranchise as many as possible. And so on.
In election after election nationwide, Democrats define Republicans to massive black audiences in this manner. And they do so with almost no serious GOP push-back. When Republicans do bother to respond, they turn to outlets like C-SPAN-2 and Fox News. This is like not responding at all.
It’s difficult to overstate how effective the Democrats’ tactics have been and how deep Republican negativity sinks into the black American psyche. Kellyanne Conway is a Republican pollster who surveyed black voters two years ago to find out which party they trusted more in a series of policy areas. Her findings are reported in Mr. Nadler’s study and help illustrate the shocking degree to which the Republican message has been lost on blacks.
Not only do Democrats enjoy an advantage in areas where you’d expect, such as health care access and abortion rights. But Ms. Conway found that “blacks preferred Democrats in Republican bulwarks as well.” Seventy-five percent of blacks polled thought the Democratic Party was more likely to lower taxes; 62% said Democrats were more likely to “reduce terrorism by strengthening the national defense”; and 69% even said Democrats were more likely than the GOP to “protect the rights of the unborn.”
Mr. Nadler attributes these results, sensibly, to the Democrats’ near-total control of the black media, and his study concludes that “such a monopoly is impossible without the co-operation of the opposition.” The left’s ability to consistently “spike” black turnout at will is a function of unadulterated political conditioning. In Mr. Nadler’s view, the Democrats are “scoring touchdowns against an opponent who has forfeited the game.”
The press corps is lately preoccupied with whether an Eastern Seaboard blue-blood like Mr. Kerry will be able to turn out a blue-collar constituency. But Democratic operatives like the masterful Donna Brazile know that’s the wrong question. Who the Democratic nominee is matters less—much less—than whether he will give foot soldiers at the precinct level the resources they need to get blacks to those voting booths on November 2. If Mr. Kerry is smart, he’ll write Ms. Brazile a blank check. The rest will take care of itself.
Meanwhile, the Republican elites will sit back, carefully assess the demographic trends and reach the wrong conclusion. They will note that more and more blacks are stockholders, own homes, graduate from college and earn middle-class incomes. They will cite data showing high approval, particularly among black GenXers, for Republican hobbyhorses like school choice and personal retirement accounts. They will point to Colin Powell and Condi Rice as GOP role models. And they will tell themselves that it’s only a matter of time before voting blacks break with Democrats in significant numbers.
They are kidding themselves. This isn’t about issues; it’s about perceptions. To be a black Republican is almost a disgrace at this point. Blacks don’t identify the right with lower taxes or a strong national defense. They identify it with hate crimes and whatever else the Democrats have chosen to project through their virtual monopolization of black media.
No matter how many “issues” the GOP uses as bait, the party’s underperformance among blacks is likely to continue so long as the negative perceptions do. “What it boils down to,” says Mr. Nadler, “is that Republicans don’t have the guts to run the kind of hard-hitting program attacking Democrats on Democratic turf.” When that changes, you’ll know the GOP is getting serious about outreach.