Republicans believe they have an opportunity to nudge their support up among black voters in the 2016 presidential election with President Obama not on the ballot — and take a major stride toward winning the White House in the process.
But they also acknowledge that it won’t be an easy task.
Even a modest rise in black backing for the GOP could be critical in swing states, independent experts acknowledge.
“There is not going to be any massive increase,” said David Bositis, a researcher specializing in voting behavior who worked for many years for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank.
“But in many places it does not take a massive increase. You have states like Ohio and Florida where you only have to have a very modest switch to flip the state.”
The last Republican presidential nominee to win 15 percent or more of black support was President Ford in 1976.
And experts warn that major shifts in voting behavior are a long time coming.
“People decades ago used to think that people would change their party identification relatively quickly. And now we understand that large-scale demographic shifts happen slowly over long periods of time,” said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University professor and an expert in black politics.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) has been by some distance the most willing GOP candidate in this cycle to reach out to black voters.
Paul has traveled to Ferguson, Mo., to speak with black leaders in the wake of unrest following the shooting death of black 18-year-old Michael Brown at the hands of a white police officer. He also has given high-profile speeches at Howard University, one of the nation’s leading historically black universities, and at a National Urban League conference. He quoted Malcolm X in the latter appearance — approvingly.
Paul also has promoted reform of drug laws and criminal justice more generally, two areas in which black Americans point to long-standing racial disparities.
Paul has asserted that his work can pay electoral dividends.
“If Republicans have a clue and do this and go out and ask every African-American for their vote, I think we can transform an election in one cycle,” the Kentuckian said in an interview with Politico last year, in which he also suggested that “fully a third of the African-American vote" is open to the GOP message.
But even those who are supportive of Paul’s efforts believe that could be expecting far too much.
“I think what he is doing will eventually have a positive effect,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “But the fruits of Paul’s work won’t be realized for two or three election cycles.”
Reformers within the GOP take solace from the fact that party leaders at least admit it has a problem with black voters, and with minorities in general.
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus delegated a group of veteran GOP operatives to review the party’s problems with specific demographic groups.
The subsequent report was stark: “The perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party.
“We need to go to communities where Republicans do not normally go to listen and make our case. We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans, and demonstrate we care about them, too.”
Shortly before that report was publicly released, Priebus himself ventured to a historically black neighborhood in New York. “Today is about listening, and today is a start,” he said.
It is a start from a very low standing, however. Obama limited Romney to 6 percent of the black vote in 2012, and his performance in 2008 had been even more dominant. That year’s Republican nominee, Sen. John McCainJohn McCainSenate committee to vote Monday on Tillerson Trump fails to mention Clinton in inaugural address Hillary Clinton under microscope at inauguration MORE (Ariz.), won only 4 percent black support, according to exit polls.
Republican nominees in other recent elections did better. President George W. Bush won 11 percent of the votes cast by blacks in 2004, and in 1996 Sen. Bob Dole won 12 percent even while going down against the incumbent, President Clinton.
The same pattern is seen in key states. In Florida, Obama won twice — with 95 percent of the black vote in 2012 and 96 percent in 2008. In 2004, then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won 86 percent of the black vote in the Sunshine State, though he lost the race.
But the capacity of even the two frontline Republican candidates from Florida to edge black support up in their home state is open to question.
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioGOP, Dems hear different things from Trump Senate committee to vote Monday on Tillerson Tillerson met with top State official: report MORE received only 4 percent of the black vote in his 2010 Senate victory. But that poor showing was almost certainly an anomaly: Rubio was in a three-person race including a black Democrat, then-Rep. Kendrick Meek.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush won an impressive 14 percent of the black vote en route to his 1998 win but that fell sharply, to around 6 percent in 2002. (Data for 2002 is much spottier, owing to a problem with the exit polling that year.)
Some political observers in the state believe Bush’s support for ending affirmative action contributed to the decline.
A University of South Florida professor emeritus, Darryl Paulson, recalled Bush holding a series of public meetings to discuss the change — and that they were often stormy affairs.
“Most of those audiences were overwhelmingly made up of African-American voters who were upset with the ending of affirmative action, which they viewed as one of the protections coming down from the federal government,” he said. "Many of those meetings became extremely hostile.”
This was hardly Bush’s first awkward public encounter of this type. In his first, unsuccessful run for the governor’s mansion in 1994, Bush was asked what he would do to help African-American voters. He replied, in part, “Probably nothing.”
Although Bush’s broader point was that he did not believe in carving up the public into different segments on the basis of race, the soundbite stuck.
Among other top-tier contenders for the GOP nomination, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has performed broadly in line with expectations for Republican candidates. Walker took 14 percent black support when he won the governorship in 2010, according to exit polls, though that fell to 10 percent by the time of his reelection in 2014.
The one real incongruity in the Republican field is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Exit polling from that state in 1998 shows Huckabee winning 48 percent of the black vote. The candidate himself has cited this on more than one occasion as evidence of his capacity to expand the GOP’s appeal.
There is considerable skepticism about the exit poll among experts in Arkansas, however, with some suggesting that it did not track with actual results from heavily black precincts.
“It’s clearly an outlier,” insisted Janine Parry, a political science professor and polling expert at the University of Arkansas. Citing approval ratings for Huckabee, she added that, “the data don’t support that he had measurably more support than your average Republican.”
Still, while a sea change in the black vote might be too much for Republicans to hope for, party strategists believe that even the most basic considerations could help.
“Republicans need to pay attention to rhetoric and tone,” O’Connell said. “Don’t give people a reason to vote against you.”