The issue of race has been at the forefront of much of the 2016 campaign, but recently the war of words and images has been taken to a new level. Hillary Clinton released a video featuring robed Klan members praising Donald Trump, saying he believes what they believe. Her Twitter feed has, since then, been filled with attacks on Trump’s “campaign of prejudice and paranoia.” For his part, Trump said at a Mississippi rally last month that Clinton was a “bigot who sees people of color only as votes, not as human beings worthy of a better future.”
But leave aside Trump and Clinton for a moment. Their battle is really about a question long raised by candidates, citizens and political scientists: In today’s two-party system, are the political interests of black Americans represented well? Or are black voters “captured” — ignored by one major party and taken for granted by the other?
The captured group theory was put forward by Princeton political scientist Paul Frymer in a book first published in 1999, “Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America.”1 He argued that politicians focus their attention on white swing voters, and that the two-party system is structured to push aside the concerns of black voters2 because they consistently and overwhelmingly favor one party.
“We generally think all voters have influence,” Frymer told me. But just as voters in battleground states are more heavily courted during a presidential election, he said, modern politicians have focused their efforts on “moderate, disaffected whites in the middle — whether you call them soccer moms or NASCAR dads.” Bill Clinton, for example, was a master at signalling that he prioritized white voters’ concerns, Frymer said, pointing to Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” criticising a black rapper and activist.
But let’s not take just Frymer’s word for it. Are black voters really “captured”? They certainly meet one part of the definition: In recent elections, more than 90 percent of the black vote has gone to the Democratic candidate for president.
Determining how well black interests are represented — or even what those interests are — is tougher. In his book, Frymer examined which groups campaigns targeted and how well the agenda of the Congressional Black Caucus fared, among other things. A recent study, “50 Years of the Voting Rights Act: The State of Race in Politics,” looked at how often government action (in this case, spending) matched voters’ policy preferences (based on survey data from 1972-2010) and concluded that “black voices are less equal than others when it comes to policy.” Other studies have shown that modern presidential campaigns make direct arguments about remediating racial problems far less than in the 1970s and 1980s.
You can also point to specific examples of Democrats who gained office thanks in part to African-American support but who enacted some policies that arguably hurt black Americans. Bill Clinton’s welfare and 1994 crime bills, for example, had a disproportionately negative effect on black communities. Obama clashed with the Congressional Black Caucus during his first term, though relations warmed during the second.
More generally, a 2015 report called “Political Powerlessness” by Nicholas Stephanopoulos at the University of Chicago Law School found that black support for Congressional legislation actually decreased its chances of passage. As he writes, “As white support increases from 0% to 100%, the likelihood of adoption increases from about 10% to about 60%. As black support rises from 0% to 100%, though, the odds of enactment fall3 from roughly 40% to roughly 30%.”
Of course, if black voters are a captured group, that doesn’t mean Trump’s ostensible outreach to the community — which included his first-ever campaign visit to a black church over Labor Day weekend — will be successful. National Urban League CEO Marc Morial, for example, sends out an annual meeting request to the White House and the leadership of the House and Senate. Since 2008, he said, “Republican House leadership has declined every meeting request.”
Or, as Frymer put it in an email:
Democrats are unequivocally better than the Republicans on a whole range of issues that a majority of black Americans care about. This is why they are captured. The Democratic Party, by doing more than nothing, is better than the Republican Party. The vote is always clearly differentiated and yet at the same time, marginalized.
He adds, “There are other groups that vote heavily Democratic — Jewish voters, for instance — that are not ignored by either party. Both parties make strong appeals to Jewish voters with regards to Israel, for instance, without fear of destabilizing their broader coalition.” It is the fear of turning off other constituencies with appeals to black Americans that shifts the playing field.
Will the strategy for winning black votes, and those of other nonwhite and Hispanic groups, change any time soon? Political scientist and African-American studies professor Todd Shaw of the University of South Carolina believes that a Trump win will solidify the nativist trend within the Republican Party, and a narrow loss will return to black voters to their captured-group status quo. Only if Trump loses by a landslide does he see the GOP moving wholeheartedly toward a strategy of courting a multiracial electorate.
DeRay Mckesson, known for organizing with the Black Lives Matter movement and for his unsuccessful run for mayor of Baltimore, said via email that he’s “doubtful that a post-Trump GOP will offer substantive philosophical shifts in approach and/or beliefs.” He sees change coming more at a local level, and only if voters push for accountability from the Democratic Party. Morial, meanwhile, made a distinction between Jeb Bush’s more multiracial outreach in the primaries — which voters rejected but which might make a return in the future — and the “nativist direction the party is [currently] taking.”
Jennifer Korn, deputy political director and national director for Hispanic initiatives at the Republican National Committee, told me the GOP is already trying to reach nonwhite voters. After 2012, she said, “we started hiring minority staff in states where we had competitive U.S. Senate, congressional and governors races that also have significant African-American, Hispanic and Asian populations.”
The key to long-term change for captured demographics may be politicians becoming willing to risk alienating white voters while failing, at first, to reach black and nonwhite ones. Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans whose father, Dutch Morial, was the city’s first black mayor, said that he made a point of courting white voters during his first run for office, even though some told him it was futile. He won in 1994 with less than 10 percent of the white vote. “I tried. I made an effort,” he said. During his second run, in 1998, he won 43 percent of the white vote. Morial believes the GOP could pick up black voters, but only through consistent outreach and by reshaping policy positions. “A chicken can’t root for Colonel Sanders,” he said.