Whether the issue is abortion or spending, a fraction of African-American, Hispanic, and young voters are on the right when it comes to policy, but voted for President Obama. These voters are immersed in a milieu where they never hear the worst of the left, or the best of the right. But there’s hope. A lifetime of attitudes can change, but not all at once. Though no national candidate will be able to change such attitudes in the few months of a presidential campaign, such change has happened before on a more local level.
In his 1998 reelection, George W. Bush won 27 percent of the African-American vote in a year where congressional Republicans posted disappointing election results. Governor Bush’s ability to win over African-American and Hispanic voters was likely a reason that the Republican establishment rallied behind him as the party’s candidate 2000 presidential candidate.
Mitch Daniels is another example. Unlike Bush, he did not much emote about being a “compassionate conservative.” And yet Daniels was able to make the case that more affordable yet more effective public services were more humane than what the Democrats were offering, and that pro-growth politics was about more than a vanguard elite of job creators. When Daniels ran for reelection, he won 20 percent of the African-American vote even when his party’s presidential candidate only won 4 percent of the African-American vote.
Importantly, Bush and Daniels won their impressive (for a Republican) margins among African Americans in a reelection campaign. They had years to build a positive impression among persuadable African-American voters. It is to the credit of both Bush and Daniels that they took advantage of those opportunities (not every Republican does that), but the fact that the voters of those states had built impressions of those candidates over several years meant that a demonization campaign would have been less effective even if the Democrats had been inclined to attempt such tactics.
A presidential election is different. As a general rule, any Republican presidential candidate will have a more skilled and better-funded opponent than those that Bush and Daniels faced in their reelections. The national African-American (and Hispanic, and youth of all races) electorate will, of necessity, be less familiar with the Republican presidential candidate.
This dynamic showed up in George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. If Bush could have replicated (at a national level) his 1998 showing among African Americans, the Democrats would have had no chance. So it was important to demonize Bush. Allies of Democratic candidate Al Gore produced a despicable ad trying to link Bush to the racist murderers of James Byrd—even as the government of Texas was pursuing the death penalty against those killers. Bush’s 2000 campaign did even worse among African-American voters than Bob Dole’s disorganized and hopeless 1996 campaign.
Smear campaigns are nothing new. If it isn’t Bush and lynching, it will be Romney and rape. It will always be something. It is very difficult—and perhaps impossible—for any candidate-centered strategy to build an enduring connection with the right-leaning but left-voting electorate. Campaigns are too short, and the relationship built during those campaigns will prove too tenuous.
The work of winning over right-leaning (really mildly right-leaning) voters and perhaps making some converts requires longer time horizons than a general election campaign, and more enduring connections than a candidate. Persuasion takes time. If you have been told that Democrats are on your side, it takes time to let the knowledge of Obama’s record on born-alive legislation turn from incredulity to critical distance from the Democratic party. It takes time to accept that maybe conservatives have policies that can address your everyday concerns. Once the public has assimilated that knowledge, it will be tougher for liberals to demonize reasonably competent conservative candidates.
The key is reaching those voters in the years between elections and directing some of the vast rivers of money that have gone into ineffective thirty-second election-year ads to slightly longer pieces on media consumed by non-conservatives. Right-leaning Super PACs spent over 400 millions dollars in the 2012 cycle. Much of that money could have been better spent in the years between elections in the production of short subjects and high quality mini-documentaries. These would have been expensive to produce and promote on both the broadcast and social media, but that is where the battle is being waged for the minds of tens of millions of Americans. It is a battle that the right is losing every day because it is a battle that the right only fights for several months every other year.
Where is the right’s version of this ad exposing the national Democratic party’s abortion extremism or promoting the benefits of right-leaning health care reform? The closest things are some Paul Ryan tutorials with cheap graphics that have been seen by a few hundred thousand people in a country of three hundred million.
In the aftermath of Chris Christie’s thumping reelection, the New Jersey governor became the Republican hope for winning over the persuadable voters. Candidates matter, but it is unfair to ask any candidate to be a savior. The right’s problem with right-leaning Democratic voters is not weak candidates. The problem is weak relationships, and the challenge is building these relationships so that America is ready to listen to the right conservative with the right agenda.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.