Credit: Getty Images/hakule

My first "grown-up" job, more than 30 years ago, was working for the Republican National Committee. A lot has changed since then — I have less hair, for one — but one fundamental fact remains: The GOP still sees itself as the "Party of Lincoln," and it still needs to move beyond that if it wants to improve its performance with Black voters.

When I worked for the RNC in 1989, Lee Atwater, George H.W. Bush's former campaign manager, was chairman. Despite Atwater's reputation for hardball tactics and the controversial "Willie Horton" TV ad run by a Bush-supporting independent group, Atwater said he wanted the party to appeal more to minorities. As it happened, the outreach office was across the hall from the fundraising division, where I worked, and I became friends with several of the staff there. As one of the few Black staffers in the building, I acquainted myself with their literature and talking points.

I was not especially impressed. The talking points said to remind folks that the GOP was, yes, the "Party of Lincoln," and that a greater proportion of Republicans than Democrats voted for civil-rights and voting-rights legislation in the 1960s. So at least they recognized that voting was important in speaking to Black voters.

This trip down memory lane has been front of mind lately.

In his speech Saturday night, President-elect Joe Biden reserved some special thanks to a Black community that provided him with a resounding South Carolina primary victory as well as big Electoral College wins in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia: "You've always had my back," he said. "And I'll have yours."

Meanwhile, early exit polls suggest that President Donald Trump got 12% of the Black vote. On the one hand, that is a huge improvement over the 6% or so he got in 2016. On the other, it is not especially impressive considering that, in the four decades before 2008, the Republican share of the Black vote for president hovered in the low double digits.

Still, it's a surprise given that this seeming reversion to the mean occurs under a president known for a harsh rhetoric on race. Trump's incessant reminders of the pre-pandemic drop in Black unemployment, his increased aid to Historically Black Colleges and Universities and his signing of the First Step Act criminal justice legislation, gave him a record to point to.

Exit polls and focus groups suggest that this message resonated especially with Black men — despite his condescending claim to being the best president ever for Black Americans with the "possible exception" of Abraham Lincoln. Of course, that very statement underscores that Trump and the GOP don't realize that they may now be blowing up whatever green shoots of goodwill they might have planted in the African-American community.

In Trump's dour non-concession speech last week, he alleged fraud in the late-ballot counting process. "They're trying to rig an election and we can't let that happen," he said. "Detroit and Philadelphia, known as two of the most corrupt political places anywhere in our country, easily, cannot be responsible for engineering the outcome of a presidential race." Yet he was also losing in places like Pennsylvania's Erie County (which he had won in 2016) — significantly Whiter than Philadelphia or Detroit. The insinuation can hardly be overlooked: Heavily Black cities are synonymous with fraud.

Echoing their president, Georgia's two Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, are calling for the resignation of fellow Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger over unspecified election "failures." What failures? A robust turnout in Atlanta that seemingly won the state for Biden and pushed Loeffler and Perdue into January runoffs? Again, there is no serious evidence of fraud. Nonetheless, Republicans tend to see a large Black turnout as a bad thing.

For Black voters, perhaps more so than any other constituency, the sanctity of the vote is a dealmaker and a dealbreaker. Once upon a time, Republicans were by their side. Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, and the post-Civil War Radical Republicans gave Black people the right to vote. This bond between party and voter lasted for more than seven decades.

Will Republicans now be serious about trying to win over (and not demonize) Black voters? They should be. Attracting as little as 20% or 25% would force Democrats onto the defensive in numerous states. Yet a party that seeks to make voting more difficult will make itself anathema to the vast majority of Black people.

Republicans will soon have an opportunity to show they've changed their view. Since the Supreme Court voided parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Black voters and elected officials have asked Congress to revise it in a constitutionally valid form. It wasn't that long ago (2006, in fact) that congressional Republicans stood with their Democratic colleagues in overwhelmingly renewing the Voting Rights Act. The "Party of Lincoln" could once again stand up for the importance of the vote — and get Black voters to listen when Republican politicians come knocking.

George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion.


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