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Black voter surge spells even more woe for the GOP

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

The GOP hopes it is an aberration that, for the first time in census history, a higher percentage of blacks than whites turned out for the 2012 presidential election. The aberration is, of course, President Obama.

The conventional political thinking is that record numbers of African American voters enthusiastically stormed the polls in 2008 and 2012 solely at the thought of making history by electing and re-electing the first black president in the country’s history.

GOP strategists take comfort in this, and calculate that no white Democratic presidential candidate will generate the same fire, passion and black voter turnout in 2016 and beyond that Obama did. There’s some truth to this, but only some. And there’s no truth that the GOP should take comfort in this.

A quick crunch of the numbers explains why. The black vote turnout did leap by nearly 2 million voters from 1996. But even in 1996, nearly 60 percent of eligible black voters still went to the polls.

The other crucial factors are the age and gender of voters. The trend in the numbers of black female voters over the past decade has been on the upswing. And the sharp upturn in black voters is among voters 45 years and older.

Older voters are traditionally a more stable and reliable voting demographic, and the growing number of black female voters virtually insures that the black vote will be a permanent potent factor in national elections. It was only a question of the right time and the right candidate for the numbers to surge. Obama, of course, fit the bill on both counts.

The 2008 election was proof of that. The mass rush of blacks to the polls was the single biggest reason that Obama carried the traditional must-win states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, and broke the GOP presidential lock on North Carolina and Virginia. With the exception of the loss of North Carolina to GOP presidential rival Mitt Romney, 2012 was a virtual repeat of Obama’s success in 2008.

Yet even before that breakthrough, the seed of a Democratic presidential candidate’s triumph was firmly planted in 1960 with the narrow win by John Kennedy over GOP rival Richard Nixon. A decisive factor for the mass defection of black voters to Kennedy in key states was Kennedy’s call to Martin Luther King Sr. in support of a jailed Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s election rout of GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater reconfirmed the make-or-break potential of black voters in national elections.

The GOP has long been aware of that. Each time the 1965 Voting Rights Act has come up for renewal, the GOP has made loud threats to water down or delay it in Congress. And each time, the GOP has been thwarted by a Democratic push back, public pressure and the fear of alienating black voters. Two GOP presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, signed the Act’s renewal.

But the stakes were too high for the GOP to throw in the towel on its obstructionism. It has two trump cards to play to try and reverse the black voter tide. One is the Supreme Court. The GOP expects that it has the five votes on the court needed to strike down the centerpiece of the Act, Section 5. This is the provision that mandates that states get “preclearance” from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting procedures.

The other GOP flagship is its domination of the state legislatures in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Ohio and several other states. There’s ongoing warfare between the Republicans and the Democrats over GOP-concocted remapping plans in Florida and Ohio, and other states. The plans would virtually insure a spate of GOP-friendly voting districts in future presidential elections.

GOP governors and state legislatures also have concocted a blizzard of voter suppression measures, from hyper-restrictive ID laws to slashing voting days and hours to further damp down the Hispanic and black vote numbers. The GOP’s aim is to gain even greater dominance in the House and win majority control in the Senate in 2014.

The biggest prize, though, is still the White House, and the more GOP-controlled districts there are in the states that Obama won in 2008 and again in 2012, the greater the odds are of rolling those states back into the GOP win column.

But these tactics can’t reverse history. The black vote is and will remain a foundation of the Democratic Party in key states. And the increased number of black voters and their willingness to go to the polls poses a mortal threat to break the GOP’s grip in the South. This can only add to the GOP’s woes.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.