A gap the GOP can't bridge in 2012: the black vote

Published Aug. 29, 2012

TAMPA — Chelsi Henry is relatively new to the Republican Party, but at age 24 she's already a rising star.

Over the past two years she's won an election in Jacksonville, served in a variety of conservative organizations and is now one of the relative few invited to attend the Republican National Convention.

Here, she stands out among a sea of white faces; Henry is black.

In the United States, roughly 85 percent of African-Americans identify as Democrats or left-leaning, according to the American National Election Studies. Only 6 percent said they were Republicans or included to the right. The Washington Post recently estimated that the Republican Party is 92 percent white and that among the remaining 8 percent, blacks were an almost imperceptible sliver.

Although the Republican National Convention does not keep demographic data on delegates, a visual survey of the convention floor bears those generalities out. Each state sent dozens of representatives, but only a few African-Americans dot the room.

Henry said she doesn't think about race when she's out participating in Republican events and has always felt embraced by her party.

"I happen to be an African-American, but that's not all of who I am," she said. "... And what matters most to each and every one of these individuals is that we stand by the Republican platform and values."

Pastor Stephen Broden, a member of the Texas delegation, said he sees himself reflected in the Grand Old Party even if most its members are white. His allegiance to the Republican Party is defined by five hot-button social issues: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning and the "redefinition of marriage." "And the platform of the Republican Party reflects my values so, therefore, I am connected with them on those issues."

Broden, who has been active in the party for about a decade, said he thinks the Democratic Party has been given too much of a voice in the black community and is helping to stifle a Republican message that could convert voters.

Black leaders "are the ones that the community turns to determine how they should vote, who they should consider," he said. "And our (black) leadership is fully committed to the progressive agenda and the progressive program to the extent that they have not allowed the other voice to come through."

It wasn't always this way. Blacks were overwhelmingly Republican during the Reconstruction Era, and Republicans helped usher through constitutional changes that ended slavery and granted Blacks civil rights.

But things changed during the tumultuous Civil Rights period. Republicans embraced a "Southern strategy," reaching out to defecting conservative Democrats who didn't like the parties' embrace of the equal rights movement. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal encouraged even more blacks to support the Democratic Party.

That strategy of exploiting anti African-American sentiments among Southern Democrats and staying on the sidelines during the social movement was the wrong step, former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said.

"We made a political calculation to grab those votes to win national offices, and that I think harmed in a very real way the relationship that exists today," he said.

Steele said he tried to make inroads during his two years as party chairman, investing up to $1 million a year to reach out to under-represented constituencies. But even then, he said, fellow Republicans questioned why he was holding town halls in black communities and those efforts have since dwindled off.

Make no mistake, no one expects Mitt Romney to receive a significant amount of the African-American vote come November, but Steele said the Republican Party needs to make reaching out to black voters a priority in order to strengthen the party's influence in state and local races.

"The numbers are going to be important, and they're voting for the other guy," he said. "They're not voting for you, and if you're not prepared to deal with that you will be the permanent minority party of this country."

There have been some advances for African-Americans in the GOP.

Florida elected its first black lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, a Republican who has served as a Mitt Romney surrogate on the campaign trail. In 2011, Tim Scott became the first black Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina in more than 100 years. Mia Love of Utah is campaigning in hopes of becoming the first black female Republican elected to Congress.

Organizations like the National Black Republican Association and many state and local groups are focused on recruiting African-Americans to the party and encouraging them to run for office.

"What we should expect is that voters will look at their value system and align with that value system," Scott said. "If that happens, we win."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at or (850) 224-7263.