2004 might turn out to be the year when blacks began their journey in the liberal imagination from perpetual victims of bigotry to "bigots" themselves. The left has always forgiven the black community a lot -- its religiosity, with which Jerry Falwell could feel comfortable; its retrograde views on abortion and school prayer; its hostility to gay rights. But now blacks just might have gone too far: They've started to vote Republican.
A pre-election survey by the well-respected Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies had President Bush's support among black voters going from 9 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2004. In that survey, Bush's support among black self-described evangelicals hit a stunning 36 percent. "We haven't seen a number like 36 percent anywhere in the black community in a generation," says conservative activist Richard Nadler, who has made it his business to win blacks to the GOP through targeted advertising and outreach.
The numbers fell off on Election Day. According to the exit polls, Bush's support among blacks nationally inched up only slightly from 9 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004. But the kind of dramatic movement in the pre-election Joint Center survey showed up in the battleground states where the GOP invested the most resources to woo black voters. Bush went from 7 percent of the black vote in Florida in 2000 to 13 percent in 2004. In all-important Ohio, Bush's support among blacks rose from 10 percent to 16 percent.
"I have not found a single black precinct where Bush's vote went down from 2000," Nadler says. "It just went up everywhere." One Republican strategist predicts that the GOP share of the black vote will hit 30 percent within the next few election cycles. If it does, many religious black voters will be finding their appropriate home in a political environment defined by a cultural split over social issues.
Someone once said of well-off Jewish voters who nonetheless vote heavily Democratic that "Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans." Blacks have long worshipped like conservative Protestants, but voted like any other reliably Democratic group. Some now are beginning to vote like conservative Protestants.
Anticipating this possibility, pro-GOP groups, including Nadler's Americas PAC, spent $3 million on advertising in minority markets, buying time for 75 different spots on every issue imaginable. The theory was simple: If blacks hear nothing but the Democratic message on the radio stations and other media outlets they pay attention to, they will always vote Democratic. "If they think you are the party of hate crimes, racial profiling, etc., who the hell is going to vote for you?" Nadler asks.
"We thought," he explains, "if you came in with a frontal assault, defending the GOP and attacking the Democratic Party at the same time, you would make progress fairly quickly." Social issues were hit particularly hard. On abortion, the groups ran ads reminding blacks of the racist beliefs of the early promoters of abortion. One ad cited today's disproportionately high abortion rate in the black community and said, "Killing black babies is no way to fight poverty."
But it was gay marriage that had the most resonance. "It really played," Nadler says. Black preachers, desperate to reinvigorate the traditional family, opposed it from their pulpits. "In the churches, there was a backlash against the notion of sexual proclivity being equated with civil rights," says Nadler. In the end, according to some estimates, 60 percent of black voters voted for the state-level referenda banning gay marriage.
For understandable historical reasons, blacks have long kept their social conservatism separate from politics, voting for liberal Democrats. If a significant number of blacks now join their fellow moral traditionalists in Red America in voting for the GOP, they will experience the sort of elite scorn heaped on all other opponents of social liberalism. Blacks will be the new "bigots." Their consolation will be having a seat at the table of the nation's new majority party.