Mitt Romney and the Conservative Black Vote


Even when they identify as right-leaning, black voters still overwhelmingly favor the Democratic Party. Academics say there's a way forward for the GOP.

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CHICAGO -- Does Mitt Romney have a snowball's chance to lure many of America's increasing number of self-styled conservative black voters?

Forget the cynical political consultants, cable pundits, and adroit spinners on individual campaigns. America's egghead class of supposedly sober and empirical political scientists have spoken and they don't see it.

That was clear at the opening of a mammoth annual academic gathering in Chicago. "Racial Identity and Political Attitudes" was the very first early morning panel Thursday when the Midwest Political Science Association began its annual four-day intellectual bacchanal, coincidentally at a hotel a few blocks from President Obama's reelection headquarters.

The "Midwest" moniker aside, the gathering draws several thousand political scientists from around the world, offers hundreds of panels and both unveils and critiques a sky-high stack of academic papers on a comically-diverse range of subjects.

Thus, the racial identity panel was one of 55 competing gatherings just at 8:30 a.m. Its rivals for bleary-eyed, Starbucks-fueled attention included "Judicial Politics in Latin America," "The Determinants of Inequality and Income Redistribution," "Congressional Campaign Spending," "Novel Ways of Theorizing the Public Space: Frankfurt School and Beyond," and, yes, "Alfarabi, Religion and Political Philosophy," reference to a long-ago Islamic scientist and philosopher.

The subject of Romney and black conservatives surfaced at a panel whose individual papers being presented included "Race is in the Eye of the Beholder?: Obama Chooses to be Black, Does the Public Agree," an inspection of response to the president's self-designation as black when filling out his Census form by a trio from the University of California at Berkeley. It actually came up after discussion of a paper titled, "More than Meets the Eye: The Nature of Black Conservatism" by Tasha Philpot, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin.

In sum, her ongoing research underscores an increasing identification among many African-Americans as conservatives. But while there is a growing nexus between whites who designate themselves conservatives and also call themselves Republicans, that's not the case with blacks. Even when moving to cite themselves as conservative, African-Americans still overwhelmingly identify with the Democratic Party and support Obama.

In part, that's explained by different criteria by which blacks and whites define both conservatism and liberalism, she said. But it wasn't until Natalia Kovalyova, a political scientist at the University of North Texas, surfaced as one of the panel's two "discussants," or de facto humorless critics after all the formal presentations, that the whole matter of Romney luring black conservatives was broached.

"This subject merits a book-length treatment," she said. "Blacks consistently vote Democratic despite increasingly self-identifying as conservatives. Is that something that can be undone?"

"What are the practical implications?" Kovalyova wondered. "Is there any chance for Republicans to win over blacks? What does this [Philpot's research] offer practitioners in crafting a [campaign] message?"

When specifically asked what the takeaway of her research would be for the Romney brain trust, Philpot said: "The takeaway is the racial component. If you want blacks, you have to deal with the image of the Republicans as associated with racism. They're ripe for the pickings if Republicans would ease up on that part of their image."

At this point, the chair of the proceeding, Gary Segura of Stanford University, decided to insert himself into the discussion.

"Race is so embedded in the Republican Party, an appeal to blacks would then hurt it with its working class whites."

Philpot will continue her work and re-craft the draft presented Thursday in light of her colleagues' suggestions. It is safe to say, since this is academe, the final product will be published long after the election.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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