Thursday, November 15, 2012

Black turnout: How’d the GOP get it so wrong?

ONE OF the more revealing postmortem aspects of the 2012 presidential election is the way that, with a striking apparent uniformity, Republican strategists and political nostradami underestimated the turnout of African Americans for President Obama, predicting that black turnout at the polls in 2012 would be substantially less than 2008.

“We didn't think they'd turn out more of their base vote than they did in 2008, but they smoked us,” said one Romney campaign operative, speaking to Politico about black Election Day turnout in the crucial state of Ohio.

Something was being smoked, maybe by the Republicans themselves. What should have been obvious to those paying attention — virtually anyone accessing information outside the conservative media ecosystem — is that African American voters had as much invested in the outcome of this presidential election as the last one, and actually a good deal more.

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As the national economy continues its slow rebound, black Americans will be picking up the pieces of their personal economies, like everyone else. But it was counter-intuitive to think that, with the many straight months of job growth that’s happened under President Obama in the first term, African Americans would abandon the policies, initiatives and executive orders that have at least put black America on the road to economic recovery.

Black voters have a lot at stake in the process of that recovery already underway; as the 93 percent black popular-vote total for Tuesday’s election indicates, starting over with a new Republican administration was never an option.

Black voters were clearly incentivized to exercise their constitutional franchise, ironically for reasons that had less to do with re-electing President Obama and everything to do with reasserting the importance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in their 21st-century lives … even as the fate of that landmark legislation may be in the hands of the Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear a challenge from Alabama of the Act’s Section 5, which Attorney General Eric Holder has called “our nation's most important civil rights statute.”

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THE EFFORTS of lawmakers in some of the swing states to curb voter registration and early voting, and to introduce nettlesome voter-ID restrictions on the eve of the election, galvanized black Americans at every level, reawakening the spirit of the civil rights era in many, or (for the tens of millions who weren’t around then) awakening that spirit for the first time.

The Republicans and the Romney campaign relied heavily on state legislatures to advance voter ID laws and to complicate voter registration efforts. They weren’t expecting aggressive pushback by civil rights organizations — or being soundly rebuffed in the courts, as they were in a late-August series of thunderclap federal-court decisions in Ohio, Texas and Florida.

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Republicans were caught flat-footed on technology; they failed to make the necessary pivot to accommodate users of social media and smartphones. Voting-rights advocates didn’t make that mistake.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, National Association of Latino Appointed and Elected Officials Education Fund, New Organizing Institute Education Fund, Rock the Vote and the Verified Voting Foundation joined forces to create a smartphone app that let voters confirm their registration status, find polling places, complete voter registration forms, and contact election officials.

The Obama for America campaign spent $31 million on digital ads through June, more than three times the $8.1 million the Romney campaign digital-ad spend for the same time period, Kate Kaye reported Aug. 17 at ClickZ Politics.

Team Obama spent nearly $4.5 million on digital advertising and text messages in June, according to ClickZ’s analysis of Federal Election Commission filings. Romney's campaign spent about $500,000.

Lesson unlearned by the Republicans: Landlines matter, but smartphones are the present and the future. The best place to reach voters is where they live, and more and more often, they live on the phone. Everywhere.

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THE REPUBLICANS confused disenchantment with abandonment. They conjured lowball estimates of black turnout based, in some part, on a misreading of news stories and analysis pieces reporting that African Americans were dissatisfied with Obama’s first-term performance, and blaming him for not focusing enough on issues pertinent to the black community.

Republicans overamplified the impact of author-activist Tavis Smiley and author and Princeton professor Cornel West, two of the more consistent burrs under the Obama saddle, commentators who have frequently criticized the Obama White House for failing to pursue programs and initiatives specifically benefiting African Americans.

They underestimated the impact of voter registration efforts around the country months before the election, including programs spearheaded by high-profile personalities like the Rev. Al Sharpton of MSNBC, who frequently made voter outreach and registration the centerpieces of his “PoliticsNation” show.

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And they apparently dismissed the work of NAACP President Ben Jealous, who told me in January about his plans “for defending and expanding the electorate” before the election to come.

“In 2012 we will be fighting voter suppression legislation wherever it’s introduced,” he said. “We’re engaged in in a number of states like Maine [where Republicans just reintroduced a voter ID bill despite voters’ rejection of a similar measure in November], but the really important states like Virginia and Pennsylvania are also in play right now.”

“Our biggest battle to stop suppression with voter ID bills is in two places. One is where bills have already passed: Texas, South Carolina and so forth,” he said. “The other part of the strategy is to fight the legislative battles in states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, where bills are pending, and in North Carolina, where the legislature has threatened to override the governor’s veto of a voter ID bill.”

“We’ll engage in very aggressive voter registration and identification drives designed to further expand the electorate,” Jealous said.

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BUT AS much as anything else, the Republican Party and the Romney campaign betrayed a short-sighted view of African American social and political history, a myopia they assumed African Americans suffered from, too. They underestimated not only the resonance of the Voting Rights Act, but also what it means and what it is today: an emotional and legislative touchstone, evidence of the enduring force of the civil rights movement.

That was obvious, if they’d been paying attention. They only had to watch one of the speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

John Lewis, the legendary Georgia congressman, spoke on Sept. 6, recounting with fire and eloquence his experience as one of the 13 original Freedom Riders, who tested the intractability of Jim Crow voter-registration and public-accommodation laws in the Deep South, often at great peril.

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In 1961, in Rock Hill, S.C., Lewis was beaten with other Freedom Riders as they tried to go into a whites-only restroom.

“A few years ago, a man from Rock Hill, inspired by President Obama's election, decided to come forward,” Lewis said at the convention. “He came to my office in Washington and said, ‘I am one of the people who beat you. I want to apologize. Will you forgive me?’ I said, ‘I accept your apology.’ He started crying. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back, and we both started crying. This man and I don't want to go back. We don’t want to go back. We want to move forward.”

“Brothers and sisters, do you want to go back? Or do you want to keep America moving forward? My dear friends, your vote is precious — almost sacred,” he said. “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.”

“Today it is unbelievable that there are Republican officials trying to stop some people from voting. They’re changing the rules, cutting polling hours and imposing requirements intended to suppress the vote … that’s not right, that’s not fair and it is not just.”

“I’ve seen this before. I’ve lived this before. Too many struggled, suffered and died to make it possible for every American to exercise their right to vote.”

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Result: Barack Obama won his second term as 44th president of the United States, with a resounding 332 electoral votes, a 3.5 million lead in the popular vote, and an African American voter turnout of 93 percent.

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THERE’S a lot of chin-pulling underway among Republican campaign consultants, analysts and seers as to how this happened, but the answer’s not that complicated:

The Republicans and Team Romney misread both the depth of black loyalty for the president and the depth of black animosity toward him. They assumed that, in a year with voting under attack in legislatures around the country, black voters didn’t have the strength to fight back, or didn’t care enough to fight back in the first place. They apparently believed that only Republicans vote for who and what is in their best interests.

They’ll have a lot to think about in the off-season of the next few years.

Image credits: 'Lil Obama supporter: via The New Republic. President Obama: The White House. Lawyers’ Committee logo: © 2012 Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Jealous: Rainier Ehrhardt/Reuters. John Lewis: pool feed image from 2012 Democratic National Convention. 

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