Why We Think John Boehner Is Hoping for Low Minority Voter Turnout

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Since we noticed yesterday that John Boehner said to a room full of reporters in Tampa that when it came to minority vote turnout this election, "I'd suggest to you they won't show up," lots of places have accused us of twisting the House Speaker's words. They're mainly upset with the word "hope" in our headline — "Boehner Says Out Loud He Hopes Blacks and Latinos 'Won't Show Up' This Election." Mediaite called the headline "misleading" while right-leaning Newsbusters called it "slander." But we think it's pretty clear what Boehner said: he hopes that Republicans will do well in the elections because he believes ("I suggest to you") minority voter turnout will be low ("they won't show up"). "Boehner Hopes for Republicans to Win This Election" would have been a more boring headline, but it would have been just as accurate.

Since different racial groups tend to vote differently from one another, it isn't terribly controversial or unusual for a disinterested political scientist or a cable news pundit to make predictions on things like turnout. People are spending a lot of time and money crunching numbers to put together models of what the electorate will look like on November 6. But John Boehner is not a disinterested party: He serves on the executive committee of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has raised $109 million -- and spent $63 million -- so far to elect Republican House members. He gave $1.7 million of his own campaign funds to the NRCC in July. At the same event in Tampa, a luncheon hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, he also underlined how focused he is on winning the election: "My goal is to gain seats.… We’re on the offense and I’m going to keep my team on offense all through the election." It's not much of a reach to say that Boehner hopes Republicans will win, and when he was asked to explain how that might happen despite polls showing historically low minority support, he predicted that low turnout for those groups means the polls won't matter. His prediction, in other words, is what he hopes will happen. 

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We obtained the audio from the session, as distributed by the Christian Science Monitor, which was also attended by a bunch of political reporters, and here is the full exchange from which we quoted:

Reporter: Mr. Speaker, could you talk a little bit about criticisms about, ah that the Republican Party can't continue to win presidential elections if they don't appeal to more voters than they are today in terms of [inaudible], non-white voters, others not in the party in terms of Hispanic voters, African-American voters? I was just looking at poll recently that showed Mr. Romney getting 0 percent support… [This is likely a reference to a NBC/ Wall Street Journal poll showing Romney with 0 percent support among blacks nationally.]

Boehner: We've never done well with those groups, but think about who this economic downturn has affected -- blacks, Hispanics, young people. 50 percent of college graduates unemployed or underemployed. And I think our economic message in this election cycle will help us recruit more of those groups than we would have otherwise. But I think it's important for our party, if we're going to be a national party, we've got to reach out, and that means showing up in their neighborhoods. It's a tall order but it can be done.

Reporter: Is it happening so far? Do you think it's happening… right now?

Boehner: This election is about economics. And they may not show up and vote for our candidate but I would suggest to you they won't show up and vote for the president either.

Boehner gives two distinct answers to the reporter's question about polls showing extremely low black and Hispanic support for Republicans. In the first, he says that in the long-term future, he would like more black and Hispanic voters to support Republicans. That is noble. But when pressed about the here and now, where polls show very few minority voters supporting the G.O.P., he answers that they won't show up—for either party.  

As we wrote yesterday, Boehner is clearly talking about the economy keeping voters away. It's not clear why people who are going through difficult times won't vote — too busy working extra jobs? can't afford gas money? — nor is it clear why this economic impact on voter turnout only applies to  non-white voters. Elsewhere in the session, while discussing the Republicans' long standing gender gap with women voters, Boehner argued that the ailing economy would encourage women to change their votes. With minorities, according to the favorable scenario Boehner envisions, they just stay home. And since that is one of the reasons he hopes Republicans will win, we're sticking with our headline.

Forbes' Giovanni Rodriguez has called Boehner's comments a gaffe. We didn't use that word because we thought rather than reflecting bigotry Boehner was talking about math. (However, this might qualify his statement as a Kinlsey gaffe: "when a politician tells the truth.") As National Journal's Ronald Brownstein reported last week, Mitt Romney needs to win 61 percent of the white vote if whites make up 74 percent of the electorate. If whites' share of the vote is just one point larger -- 75 percent -- then Romney needs only 59 percent of the white vote. One way to make whites a larger share of the electorate is to boost white turnout. Another way is to reduce black and Latino turnout. When you're drawing up election strategies only a limited number of variables are available.

One of those variables, as Newsbusters, Ken Shepherd notes, is that minority voters who have been hit hard by the Great Recession will vote Republican because they "feel that the president has failed to deliver." That is certainly a possibility. But it's one that Boehner rejected yesterday: "they may not show up and vote for our candidate but I would suggest to you they won't show up and vote for the president either."

And while we don't have to infer anything into Boehner's comments, it is worthy context to note that several state Republican leaders have also said they would like to reduce minority voter turnout to help their party's chances. In Pennsylvania, which just passed a controversial voter I.D. law, a study by Azavea that 1 in 3 Philadelphia voters didn't have the right I.D., and that they were predominantly black and Latino. The fact that those voters are more likely to vote for Obama did not escape local Republican leaders. In June, state House Republican leader Mike Turzai listed many accomplishments, including, "Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done."

In Ohio, initially early voting stations in Democratic counties were only going to be open during business hours, while Republican counties would be open nights and weekends. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted eventually ordered all county boards of elections to have the same hours. Husted had been the tie-breaking vote to block extra voting hours in urban areas, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Doug Priesse, chair of the Franklin County, Ohio, Republican Party, made an explicitly racial comment when asked whether restrictions on early voting hours and voter ID laws were meant reduce minority turnout. In an email sent earlier this month to The Columbus Dispatch's Darrel Rowland, Priesse said:

"I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine… Let’s be fair and reasonable."

Priesse is not taking a stand against voter fraud, but against turning out black voters to the polls. Mediaite's Noah Rothman thinks because the words "fair" and "resonable" were said, Priesse is actually being fair and reasonable. "Prior to reading Reeve’s illuminating article, I would have considered the words 'fair' and 'reasonable' to be rather non-discriminatory. How hopelessly naïve of me," he wrote. I would agree with that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.