The most segregated place in American politics just might be a partisan primary.
The massive racial disparities in voter turnout between Republicans and Democrats help explain how Donald Trump seems to be insulting his way to the nomination. But this same dynamic also underscores how screwed the GOP is in terms of national demographic shifts if they choose to go further down this dangerous path.
Today is Super Tuesday, nicknamed the SEC primary because it includes many states in the Southeastern college sports conference. Contrary to stereotypes, the South is more racially diverse than many regions in the United States. Also contrary to stereotypes, Republicans field a more diverse set of statewide elected officials than Democrats, as evidenced by the presence of two Hispanic senators from the South running for president on the right side of the aisle.
But the good news stops there. The racial polarization beneath our politics becomes clear when you look at who turns out to vote in partisan primaries.
Let’s start with a look at South Carolina—a state where black people make up 28 percent of the population, roughly double the national average.
Hillary Clinton won a massive victory there this past weekend, winning 86 percent of black vote in a primary where African Americans made up 61 percent of the turnout.
A week earlier, Republicans ran in the same state and CNN exit polls showed that black support for Republicans was almost nonexistent—or, in the statistical parlance of exit polls, “n/a”—not applicable.
This troubling trend is likely to become only more pronounced on Super Tuesday. Eight years ago—the closest comparison we have to this open-seat presidential cycle—voter turnout was high but the diversity was also skewed to one side, especially in the South.
In delegate-rich Texas, for example, black people make up 10 percent of the population, but made up only 2 percent of the voters in the 2008 Republican primary. Hispanics made up 38 percent of the Lone Star State population, but only 10 percent of the Republican votes. But in the Democratic primary, black Americans were 19 percent of the vote and Hispanics 32 percent of the vote, respectively.
In Alabama, black people make up 26 percent of the population, but made up only 4 percent of GOP primary voters in 2008. On the Democratic side of the aisle, black voters made up 51 percent of the primary electorate.
The same dynamic was evident in Georgia. Black Americans made up 31 percent of the population in 2008, but only 4 percent of the GOP primary vote. In contrast, black voters made up 52 percent of the Democratic primary turnout.
We’ll round out the sample set with Virginia, where black people make up 19 percent of the total population but made up only 3 percent of GOP primary voters in 2008. On the Democratic side, black voters constituted 30 percent of the primary turnout.
If you’re from the South or have spent much time there, these results may seem unremarkable. But they are a sign of a deeper sickness in our political system, where race is too often a partisan signifier.
Here’s the short version of how this happened in the South: This division is rooted in the legacy of slavery and the Civil War: The states of the former Confederacy voted against the Party of Lincoln for a hundred years (and blacks who could vote were loyal Republicans) until conservative Barry Goldwater voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Southern Strategy began. White Southern Democrats became Republicans, but they remained conservative populists.
This dynamic was compounded in recent years by collusion between the two parties in the form of the rigged system of redistricting, which gerrymandered the South into white and black congressional districts, rural and urban, driving the Bill Clinton-era Blue Dogs—centrist white Southern Democratic congressmen—into extinction. There are no swing seats left but the racial polarization of the parties in the South is intact, further reinforcing the sense that partisans can simply play to the political and racial base rather than reach out to form new coalitions.
Almost needless to say, this racial polarization does not mean that voters in the respective parties are racist—especially by the standards of a generation ago—but it does mean that that the rank and file of our political parties are more segregated than our society at large. And the elevation of Donald Trump to the GOP nomination will only compound these problems.
This primary turnout explains how the rise of a Trump is possible while spewing divisive racial rhetoric: There is no short-term political cost and quite possibly some short-term political benefit in playing to fears of demographic change, cultural and economic resentment and anger toward the first black president. But the long run is all downside.
That’s because partisan primary turnout is often unrepresentative of the overall state. So you can win a partisan primary without having those results be a predictor of how the state will vote in the fall, especially in the case of a crucial swing state like Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado, or Virginia. The primaries become the tail that wags the dog: A small number of voters, represented by an even smaller number of professional partisan activists and special interests, get massive attention from candidates trying to win the nomination. If you’re campaigning for the Republican nomination, you can safely ignore diverse communities, but that play-to-the-base path to winning the nomination is a surefire path for losing a general election.
Say what you want about George W. Bush, but he was genuinely passionate about increasing the reach of the Republican Party into communities of color. The foundation of his 2000 presidential run was his landslide re-election as governor of Texas in 1998, when he won 40 percent of the Latino vote.
Trumpkins will point out that The Donald won the Latino vote in the Nevada caucus last month. This is true and doubly impressive/depressing running against two actual Hispanics, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—as Ruben Navarrette predicted in The Daily Beast. But it’s not incidental to point out that while a record 75,000 Republicans caucused, only an estimated 6,000 were Latino—well below the 27 percent of the population that is Hispanic. Cut this stat with two other facts—President Obama won the Latino vote by 50 points in Nevada and 80 percent of Latinos nationwide have a negative view of Trump—and you quickly pack up any notions that Trump’s Nevada caucus victory is an indicator of general-election strength.
And so it goes. The increasingly narrow base of the GOP, dominated by conservative populists, has created the conditions for a celebrity demagogue like Donald Trump. The absence of a strong center-right or real depth of diversity among the Republican constituency means that the party can be too easily hijacked in five weeks of partisan primaries by pandering to an electorate that doesn’t look much like the America that candidate will have to win—let alone govern.
While the polls show that Donald Trump is primed for a big night, don’t believe the hype: No matter how “yuge” the win, the underlying electoral math is apocalyptic for any party that chooses to not only ignore but insult the growing diversity in America.