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Eye On Candidates
July 20, 2015

Racial Issues on the 2016 Campaign Trail

Racial politics can be an important (and often ugly) element of American politics, posing problems difficult for any candidate to navigate regardless of his or her party or perspective. The topic has made an appearance in recent weeks on the campaign trail, opening opportunities for some candidates while others appear to be struggling. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems to be leading on the issue in the GOP field, as Juan Williams writes for The Hill:

Juan Williams: Perry points way forward for GOP on race

What is Rick Perry up to?

The former Texas governor looks to be cutting himself out of the conservative herd. He recently blasted his fellow Republicans for losing “our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity,” by being “content to lose the black vote.”

Now, as he runs for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, Perry claims he is looking to help black people. “We’re a country with Hispanic CEOs, with Asian billionaires, with a black President,” he said in a speech earlier this month. “So why is it, today, so many black families feel left behind? Why is it that a quarter of African-Americans live below the poverty line [even with] food stamps and housing subsidies?  

"I’m here to tell you that it’s Republicans, not Democrats, who are truly offering black Americans the hope for a better life.”

Williams notes The Wall Street Journal called Perry’s comments “the speech of the campaign so far” and described the editorial as praising Perry for delivering “a telling blow against Democrats who have been hiding behind “identity politics and grievance” to disguise the failure of their liberal policies to root out harsh, persistent black poverty, academic achievement gaps and high rates of incarceration.”

He concludes, “A proverb says the best time to plant an oak tree is 100 years ago and the second best is now. Republicans are unlikely to win the black or Latino vote in 2016. But reaction to his speech shows Perry has started the work on reviving GOP prospects among minorities.”

Winning the black or Latino vote may not be in the GOP’s immediate future, but from a purely political perspective it doesn’t need to be. Roughly speaking, a Republican Party that can regularly win 60 percent of the white vote, 40 percent of the Latino vote, and 20 percent of the black vote can be expected to compete successfully in the coming decades. Republicans regularly win the white vote by that margin, and President George W. Bush and other Republicans have also managed to exceed the 40 percent margin with Latinos. Whether Perry’s comments can begin a process that might bring the GOP toward that final target remains to be seen.

Over on the Democratic side, the issue of race can be just as contentious and troublesome for candidates as on the GOP side, although the problems are different. The New York Times carries an article suggesting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley are having very different but very real problems with racial issues as they pursue their party’s nomination:

A group of protesters repeatedly confronted Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland during a town hall discussion with liberal activists here on Saturday, demanding the Democratic presidential candidates address issues like discrimination and police brutality.

Chanting, “What side are you on, my people, what side are you on?” and “Black lives matter,” the demonstrators moved to the front of the ballroom about 20 minutes into the event as Mr. O’Malley discussed proposed changes to Social Security. They remained there, heckling the candidates and posing questions, until organizers shut down the event, one of the centerpieces of the annual Netroots Nation conference….

The four-day conference is the largest annual gathering of liberal activists from across the country. It was expected to offer a friendly crowd to Mr. O’Malley, and especially to Mr. Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist whose campaign has ignited widespread support from progressives.

Protesters specifically cited the candidates’ lack of specificity in their policy proposals for addressing their concerns, with the Times reporting one spokesperson for the activists told the paper that the crowd “would have ceased chanting had they felt the candidates were giving substantive, authentic responses, rather than ‘cookie cutter generalities.’”

Beyond any possible frustration with “cookie cutter generalities,” both candidates face serious problems on race as they pursue the Democratic nomination.

For Sanders, having represented nearly all-white Vermont for years, he simply has little experience reaching out to black voters, as CNN reports:

"I haven't seen him engaging the black community. Nor am I hearing any chatter about him," said Rick Wade, Obama for America's African-American vote director. "Black voters don't know him."

A June CNN/ORC poll showed just 2% of black Democrats supporting Sanders, a figure that has remained unchanged since February. Among non-white voters overall, Sanders polls at 9% compared to Hillary Clinton's 61%....

"He is not a rainbow coalition guy or at least he hasn't been," said Greg Guma, author of "The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution," who has known Sanders since the 1970s. "He feels like he knows what the problem is and it's monopoly capitalism. Anything that takes him away from that message is a distraction."

Sanders’ current challenge attracting black votes is likely fixable with some changes to his message and campaign strategy. O’Malley, on the other hand, may have a bigger problem, according to Newsweek:

The headline on the front page of The Washington Post’s September 15, 1999, late edition was startlingly politically incorrect: “White Man Gets Mayoral Nomination in Baltimore.” Martin O’Malley had defeated two African-American candidates, and thanks to Baltimore’s heavily Democratic makeup (roughly 90 percent of registered voters), he went on to become the rare white mayor of a majority-black city….

[T]hat headline continues to define O’Malley’s career as a politician who knows how to get black votes. After all, he attracted nearly a third of Baltimore’s black voters that year and a sizable majority of them four years later. After his two terms as mayor, O’Malley served two terms as governor of Maryland, beginning in 2007 and ending in January of this year. That state is a good proving ground for a candidate’s ability to garner black support, since it is over 30 percent black, one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans in the country….

But peer behind O’Malley’s election numbers and there are hints his magic touch with black voters is gone. That’s partly because O’Malley was never truly beloved by Maryland’s African-American community, where he benefited from a lack of strong black opponents. And while he successfully fought for policies important to the black community, those victories have been overshadowed by his controversial approach to law enforcement in Baltimore, which lowered crime but ratcheted up tensions between black residents and the police. The rioting this spring that followed the death of a black man at the hands of Baltimore police put O’Malley on the defensive, as police brutality is now the civil rights cause of the moment. And that’s not a discussion O’Malley appears eager to be drawn into. In the early days of his presidential campaign, he has all but ducked the issue of race and treated his city’s rioting as a symptom of some national malaise, not part of his legacy.

O’Malley’s success in reducing violent crime in Baltimore appears to prove the adage that no good deed goes unpunished. While the Newsweek reporter notes O’Malley is likely to be able to count on black voters’ support if he gets the Democratic nomination, it seems unlikely he can count on their support during the nomination fight. And in the general election, a savvy Republican might be able to chip away at African-Americans’ near-monolithic support for Democrats, edging close to the 20 percent number that could tip the election towards the GOP.