The Simplest 'Outreach'
Ask black Americans for their votes, for heaven's sake

National Review, vol. LIII, no. 4
March 5, 2001

Ramesh Ponnuru and Richard Nadler

'Why do blacks hate us?" It's a question that has long perplexed conservatives and Republicans. They've been asking it with new intensity since November, when "compassionate conservatism" struck out with 91 percent of the black electorate. Increased black turnout helped Democrats gain Senate seats in Michigan, Washington, Florida, and Missouri.

Most Republicans recognize that they need to win more black votes. There has been no shortage of advice on how to do this. Republicans have been told to soft-pedal old issues, and to devise new ones. They have been counseled to push harder on school choice, to oppose immigration, to rethink the drug war. One Republican suggested that the party "co-opt" or even "buy" black leaders.

The multiplicity of suggestions is a sign that the party really has no idea what to do. The prevailing mood is one of resignation tinged with despair. Republicans feel they have done as much as they can, while remaining Republicans, to court blacks. They pointedly avoided campaigning against racial preferences. (Even in Florida, where they were an issue, the Republicans tried mightily to defuse it.) They found every black person they knew and put him onstage during the Republican convention. Since his election, President Bush has appointed blacks to powerful offices, met with left-wing black congressmen, and proposed welfare reforms that would direct millions of dollars to black churches. None of it seems to work. Some Republicans are therefore tempted to surrender. Since blacks constitute only 10 percent of the electorate, they figure the party should find its votes elsewhere. But for the GOP to give up on blacks would be a mistake. For one thing, in many states blacks are a substantial and growing percentage of the electorate. In addition, blacks are among the few identifiable populations that contain more conservatives than Republicans. They should be no more out of reach for George W. Bush than blue-collar Democrats were for Ronald Reagan.

It would be a mistake, finally, because it is not in fact true that the Republicans have done everything they can to get black votes. They have neglected, for instance, to ask for them. Policy intellectuals are naturally tempted to devise programmatic responses to the party's problem with blacks: modify this position, accentuate that one. Pundits like to ponder big issues such as the effect of America's racial history on blacks' political psychology. But they're overlooking a simple, but big, part of the problem: Republicans aren't running ads that reach black voters.

Consider the case of Kansas City. We choose it not just because it's our hometown, but also because it was the second biggest market in the country for political ads in 2000-right behind St. Louis. Missouri was a swing state in the presidential race. It was also the site of hard-fought races for senator and governor. Two congressional seats were contested in the area, one on either side of the Kansas-Missouri state line. In the end, high turnout among blacks, who were 5 percent of the Missouri electorate in 1996 but 12 percent in 2000, yielded narrow Democratic victories for Bob Holden over Jim Talent (governor) and Jean Carnahan over John Ashcroft (senator).

The most popular black radio station in Kansas City is KPRS-FM, "Hot 103 Jamz." Here's a synopsis of the political ads that KPRS listeners heard during four hours of drive time on November 2, five days before the election:

--The notorious NAACP ad accusing George W. Bush of indifference to the brutal racial killing of James Byrd.

--An ad by the Missouri Democratic party in which the announcer says, "Under George W. Bush, 75 percent of juveniles are incarcerated in Texas, and 100 percent of the juveniles in adult prisons are minorities."

--Another ad by the Democrats implying that more low-birth-weight babies will be born and more old folks will go hungry paying for their medicine unless listeners vote Democratic.

--A union ad for Bob Holden, the Democratic candidate for governor, promising that he will vanquish the "forces of darkness arrayed against us that would turn back the clock on our community."

--A National Education Association ad lauding Kansas Democratic congressman Dennis Moore for supporting its agenda: smaller class sizes, school construction, universal preschool.

--A Missouri Democratic-party ad that tags Republicans for the racial profiling of black students whose sole crime is "DWB-driving while black." (The ad is repeated minutes later.)

--An ad from a feminist PAC about Jean Carnahan ("when women vote, women win").

--Another union ad, this one featuring a pastor who says that Holden's opponent, Talent, "doesn't represent our values" because he "voted with John Ashcroft against our kids to slash federal education funds, cut student loans, against affirmative action, and to repeal the ban on semi-automatic assault weapons."

--The NEA ad for Dennis Moore again.

--A Bob Holden campaign ad.

--The racial-profiling ad, again.

--The ad about Holden fighting the "forces of darkness," again.

--The profiling ad, a fourth time.

--The pastor attacking Jim Talent, again.

--The profiling ad for the fifth time.

--The ad on Holden and the "forces of darkness."

--And the anti-Talent ad featuring the pastor for the third time.

Interspersed with these ads were public-service announcements urging listeners to vote, news stories, and commentary by the DJs, all having the effect of reinforcing the imperative to vote Democratic.

Were there any Republican ads to offset this onslaught during this period? Yes. Two of them, each aired once. One was by the Republican National Committee, another by the Republican Ideas Political Committee (Richard Nadler, president). The pro-Democratic ads aired 18 times.

During and after the election, Republicans have faulted the NAACP and other "civil rights" groups for employing race-baiting tactics to mobilize black voters against them. But it is foolhardy to expect these groups to be moved by guilt over a strategy that works so brilliantly. Republicans should expect more of the same in 2002. Besides, Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume were not principally responsible for the ad barrage. Even the race-baiting ads were more often produced by regular committees of the Democratic party or by labor unions than by the black-activist groups.

Moreover, ads dependent on lies and race-baiting were not the Democrats' whole campaign, or even most of it. Such tactics may have given the campaign its character, but ordinary politics supplied its content. The NEA went into black neighborhoods with its standard spiel. So did women's groups, and white Democratic candidates. Dennis Moore and Bob Holden were there, day after day, making their points and selling their programs.

Republicans were there, too, in a way: executing blacks, hassling them, denying their children education, chaining them to pick-up trucks and dragging them to their deaths. That Republicans favor tax cuts, school choice, and respect for unborn life would not occur to someone whose primary source of political information was what he heard on the radio going to and from work. If KPRS was your station, you "knew" that 75 percent of juveniles in Texas were incarcerated as well as you knew Mystikal's hit song, "Shake It Fast." It requires no special understanding of blacks' psychology or historical experience to predict the reaction of ordinary people to so much unanswered propaganda.

Republicans who debate whether to adopt "new issues" to attract blacks are missing the point: At present, they have no issues in black America. Hence blacks trust Democrats more than Republicans not only on standard Democratic issues such as health care and Social Security, but even on Republicans' traditional issues. In a poll last year, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies asked "which of the two political parties has the better approach" on various issues. Blacks preferred Democrats to Republicans on national security by 58-to-21 percent; on "keeping unemployment low" by 78-to-8 percent; and on cutting taxes by 64-to-15 percent.

Why aren't Republicans doing better? In the past, they neglected black areas deliberately, for tactical reasons. They understood that blacks were not as liberal as they were Democratic, and that there are black conservatives who oppose abortion, gun control, and high taxes, just like their white counterparts. But they calculated that a campaign to increase the Republican share of the black vote would backfire if it also increased black turnout. That strategy, whatever its morality, made pragmatic sense when black turnout was low. But it cannot work when black turnout is high. Democrats have been able to stimulate record black turnout in selected media markets. They have done so both by hyping imaginary racial crises and by blaming Republicans for real problems.

Under the present circumstances, Republicans must identify and turn out their potential vote in the urban core, just as they do in the white suburbs. And not just Republicans must do this. Every element of the Democratic coalition participates in the wooing of black America; but almost all elements of the conservative coalition avoid it. That must change.

Black "outreach" by the Right has been a pathetic affair. White conservatives love funding their black counterparts, who tour the country regaling white audiences. But most black voters don't watch C-SPAN coverage of NAACP conventions, let alone the banquets of conservative think tanks. Conservatives fantasize about creating a new black leadership. But no such leadership can emerge until the party can give it power in black America, and it cannot do that until it has partisans there. Lacking them, conservatives have attracted a motley crew of black intellectuals, apolitical businessmen, and courageous mavericks-but not votes.

If Republicans are going to fight for black allegiance, they must do so where black voters live. They need to run ad campaigns about school choice, taxes, Social Security, abortion, crime. They should run them on the gospel stations of black churches, on Black Entertainment Television-and on Hot 103 Jamz.