Mixed Messages

The GOP’s Racial Handicap

A party precinct chair derailed new Republican efforts to attract more black support when he called black people ‘lazy’ on The Daily Show. Lloyd Green on why the GOP brand is now toxic.

The Daily Show

Talk about political schizophrenia and stepping on your message.

The GOP has been making efforts to engage black voters. Shaquille O’Neill just came out in favor of re-electing Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Last Monday, the Republican Party announced it had opened an African-American engagement office in North Carolina that would be “responsible for building strong and lasting relationships with black communities across North Carolina.”

But last Wednesday, Mother Jones reported that Mississippi Republican Chris McDaniel—who is challenging incumbent U.S. Senator Thad Cochran (R) and is backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth—had “addressed a neo-Confederate conference and costume ball hosted by a group that promotes the work of present-day secessionists and contends the wrong side won the ‘war of southern independence.’” And, last Wednesday night, the GOP precinct chair from Buncombe County, North Carolina, Don Yelton, appeared on The Daily Show to talk about voter ID laws and voter suppression. The now-viral clip includes Yelton admitting to being called a bigot, referring to African-Americans as lazy, and saying, “one of my best friends is black.” (Yelton has since resigned.)

Apparently, some members of the party that was once known as the Party of Lincoln can’t resist acting like the Democrats of yore, back when the Democratic Party was home to secessionist Sen. John C. Calhoun and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Outgoing Texas governor and former Republican presidential contender Rick Perry once mused about Texas’s right to secede from the Union. Last summer, an aide to Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Jack Hunter, made headlines when it came to light that he was once known as the “Southern Avenger,” a radio shock jock who had made provocative comments about the Civil War and race.

America’s electoral landscape has shifted dramatically over the last quarter of a century, let alone since the Civil War. In 1988, Democrat Mike Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush by more than 7 points in the popular vote, even though he won 40 percent of white voters. In contrast, two dozen years later, Barack Obama was reelected after winning only 39 percent of the white vote, the largest deficit of white votes of any successful Democratic candidate, as The Washington Post’s Dan Balz notes. Obama won 80 percent of the non-white vote.

The flip side to the GOP becoming ever- and over-reliant upon white votes is the Democratic Party likely becoming a majority-minority party over the next decade. According to Emory University Political Science Professor Alan Abramowitz, “between 1992 and 2012, the nonwhite share of Republican voters increased from 6% to 11% while the nonwhite share of Democratic voters increased from 21% to 45%.” Abramowitz sums it up this way: “as the nonwhite share of the American electorate has grown in recent decades, the racial divide between the Democratic and Republican electoral coalitions has steadily increased.”

To get a sense of where the parties are at on a micro-level, it pays to look at South Carolina, Calhoun’s home state. In the 2008 South Carolina Republican primary, whites were approximately 96 percent of the Republican primary vote. By 2012 that number inched up to 98 percent, as Newt Gingrich upset Mitt Romney.

South Carolina Democrats, too, displayed a racial divide, albeit one less pronounced. African-Americans comprised 55 percent of voters in the 2008 South Carolina Democratic primary. Still, in all fairness, South Carolina elected Republican Nikki Haley, an Asian-American, as governor, while Republican Tim Scott, an African-American, serves as senator.

Gender also plays a key role in modern America politics, and once again South Carolina helps to tell the story. In the 2008 South Carolina presidential primary, women made up more than 60 percent of Democratic primary voters, while men were 51 percent of those who cast ballots in the South Carolina Republican primary. Safe to say, it is no accident that the first woman to wield the speaker’s gavel was a Democrat, Nancy Pelosi.

In Congress, women and minorities are a majority of House Democrats, but white men make up more than 80 percent of the House Republicans. It is also not happenstance that the blow-up over the recent government shutdown felt so raw, and that there is ever less comity in Congress. As the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato observed, “When you have parties so divergent in views, regions, and genders, the culture wars could escalate from conventional to nuclear weapons.”

Right now, the Republican brand is looking toxic. Among seniors and independents, the GOP’s unfavorability rating has swelled to more than 60 percent. To put this in context, just last November Mitt Romney won nearly two-thirds of voters 65 years old and up, and half of the independents.

While the shutdown may have been a great personal experience for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), it is an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party. Indeed, 70 percent of white college graduates now look unfavorably on the GOP. If this trend continues, the GOP will be relegated to being little more than a regional party. Without seniors, college graduates, and independents, the Republicans are left with only ideologues, opportunists, high-end donors, and little else.

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To be sure, the debate about Obamacare is about race and class, much as the president and the GOP seek to couch the discussion in buzzwords geared to the ears of their respective bases. Like it or not, Obamacare is an inter-generational and inter-demographic wealth transfer. Effectively, it is an effort to redistribute income and benefits to the core of Obama’s support in the urban slice of blue America, away from older, suburban, and rural population segments.

Obamacare’s winners and losers dovetail with the “cross-tabs” of the 2008 and 2012 elections. That is, younger and multicultural Americans stand to gain, while the older and wealthier stand to pay. Given these realities, antipathy from America’s taxpaying base toward Obamacare should come as no surprise, especially as Obamacare is not based on work, unlike Social Security and Medicare. Rather, Obamacare is an unearned entitlement.

That said, the secessionist impulse was and remains a political loser. It reeks of desperation and signals an inability to come to grips with modernity. Wearing a tri-cornered hat on the Washington Mall is one thing; unfurling a Confederate Flag in front of Obama’s White House is something very different and disgraceful. The question for the Republican Party is whether it can figure this out soon enough.