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Can the GOP attract black voters? Here's how Republican governors do it.

John Kasich speaks to voters
As governor, John Kasich attracted 26 percent of the black vote in Ohio.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Donald Trump easily outpaced John Kasich on the way to the Republican presidential nomination, and the two men continued to feud bitterly as Trump celebrated his victory at the Republican convention, awkwardly held in the state where Kasich is governor. But there’s one area in which Kasich runs circles around Trump: support among black voters.

In a recent NBC/WSJ/Marist poll, Trump pulled off the notable accomplishment of attracting zero percent of the black vote in Ohio (yes, zero). In contrast, Kasich managed to receive 26 percent of the black vote (including fully 33 percent of the votes of black men) in his successful 2014 gubernatorial reelection bid.

Trump’s remarkable unpopularity among African Americans surely is connected to his divisive rhetoric, but the gap between the two men on this score also reflects a difference in the way black Americans view Republican governors and national Republican candidates.

Republican governors routinely outperform their national peers in attracting black voters

Admittedly the Kasich numbers are anomalous for Republican candidates at all levels of government, but they are more common in gubernatorial elections than in presidential contests. Before him, there was Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, who won 42 percent of the black vote following his popular tenure as the mayor of Cleveland, a majority-minority city. More recently, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who has since cozied up to Trump — won 21 percent of the black vote in his 2013 reelection win.

There’s more: In her losing bid for governor of California, in 2010, Meg Whitman received 21 of the black vote; in 1998, then-Texas-Gov. George Bush and Arkansas' Mike Huckabee received 27 percent and 48 percent, respectively (although the latter figure is often disputed due to the exit poll’s small sample size). Other Republicans who have fared well with black voters include Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Jeb Bush (Florida), Tom Ridge (Pennsylvania), Mitch Daniels (Indiana), and Charlie Crist (Florida).

Republican presidential candidates cannot fathom receiving such support from black voters today. The last time such a candidate crossed the 20 percent threshold was in 1960 when Richard Nixon received 32 percent of the black vote in his loss to John F. Kennedy.

President George W. Bush received 27 percent of the black vote during his last Texas gubernatorial election, but he couldn’t manage half that support in the 2004 presidential election just six years later. Between 1968 and 2004, Republican presidential nominees averaged just over 11 percent of the black vote. In the last two elections, however, John McCain and Mitt Romney drew considerably less — 4 percent and 6 percent, respectively — no doubt in part because they were running against a black candidate. Trump is likely to see similarly dismal numbers because of his rhetoric and lack of acceptable policy stances.

National GOP candidates emphasize ideology in a way that turns off even black conservatives

Why the gap between the Republican performance at the state and national levels? For one thing, at the national level, Republican politicians embrace the politics of colorblindness more often — that is, they tend to eschew policies that are explicitly designed to reduce racial disparities.

Further, these race-neutral policy positions are often accompanied by coded language that communicates tacit approval of racial discrimination — phrases such as "states’ rights" and "law and order" (the latter recently borrowed by Trump from Richard Nixon). This approach is a strategic attempt to appease its heavily white voting base while still communicating a sense of equality and fairness for all. The second part of that message rarely connects with black voters, who feel that the "colorblind" worldview is inherently unfair, because it ignores the structural faults that disproportionately disadvantage black Americans.

Republican presidential candidates are also the standard-bearers for a party that desires less federal oversight in every area of American life, whereas black Americans believe oversight has proved an appropriate way to protect civil rights in such areas as housing, education, and voting.

Governors, however, are less constrained by the ideology of colorblindness. They tend to be more focused on addressing issues close to home that impact the daily lives of their constituents. Local politics gives individual Republican pols the leeway to make nuanced appeals to the black electorate in a way that sidesteps the fundamental causes of tension between black voters and the party. (Because of the national-local divide, Republican governors do better in years when their races are decoupled from presidential elections.)

Building such rapport can take time. It is no coincidence that nearly all of the Republican governors cited above achieved those relatively high levels of black voter support during reelection bids. It took them a term to earn the trust of some black voters, counter the party stigma of racial insensitivity, and establish a policy record that constituents could assess.

Some of these policy efforts reflect genuine engagement with issues of interest specific to black voters: race-conscious approaches instead of race-neutral appeals. For example, Kasich was the first Ohio governor to meet, and even exceed, the statutory percentage of state contracts awarded to minority businesses: 15 percent. While he was in office, the figure reached 19 percent, up from 5.1 percent under Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. Kasich also supported criminal justice reform, including ban-the-box initiatives; opposed voter ID laws; and accepted Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

Mike Huckabee (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Before he became a national candidate, Mike Huckabee showed the ability to appeal to black voters.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Similarly, Gov. Huckabee spent a considerable amount of time in black communities holding town halls — during which he apparently listened, because he created a health care program for poor black children. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was lauded for his handling of the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts and held a 70 percent approval rating heading into his 2013 reelection, due in no small part to his literal and figurative embrace of President Barack Obama during the recovery efforts — a gesture of particular importance to black Americans.

What recent history makes clear is that black Americans will support a state-level Republican as long as the candidate demonstrates a genuine empathy toward African Americans, conducts sincere and aggressive outreach, and presents policy solutions that address issues of black concern.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of Republican governors who choose to embrace hyper-partisan, divisive ideologies and related policies. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s terrible showing among black voters (around 6 percent) is directly attributable to his support for bathroom laws targeting trans people, restrictive voter identification laws that the courts recently found to be intentionally discriminatory against African Americans, and cuts to higher education funding.

Why hasn’t the party been able to translate African American support for some of its governors into votes for its presidential candidates? Often, when they move from statewide to national politics, governors embrace the kind of rhetoric that turns off black voters. Huckabee’s commentary on Fox News helped to erase the memory of his inclusive governance in Arkansas. Jeb Bush, despite outreach to minority voters as Florida’s governor, resorted in his presidential campaign to repeating tropes about black Americans desiring "free stuff."

Black voters often feel uncomfortable giving expression to conservative political views because they view conservative politicians as people who traffic in coded racist appeals. Yet black conservatives exist in non-trivial numbers, as their support for Republican governors suggest. They may not be small-government extremists, but within black America, there are many who support school choice, desire less federal regulation, and hold socially conservative views. Nearly 30 percent of black Democrats describe their political views as conservative. And blacks have been found to be as conservative as Republicans on family-oriented moral issues, such as premarital sex.

If Republican presidential candidates want to realize the success of some governors, they’ll need to learn to tread the narrow path between earning the trust of black voters through specific policy-oriented appeals and carrying the banner for conservative ideology nationally. That’s a tough row to hoe.

Trump, needless to say, has shown zero interest in the project. In fact, his racially intolerant campaign is certain to hurt down-ballot candidates. With almost any other candidate, we think the GOP probably would have gotten close to its 11 percent average now that it doesn't face the burden of running against a black candidate. But given the kind of campaign Trump has cobbled together, that seems highly unlikely.

Kasich is far from the ideal conservative candidate for black Americans: He was criticized for lack of diversity in his cabinet and last spring blamed "the minority community" for failing to do enough to reduce infant mortality. Still, it is telling that while Trump was headlining a convention that energetically projected a message of despair and exclusion, Kasich was a couple hours away addressing the NAACP’s annual convening.

Republican governors certainly aren't all masters of the outreach game. For every Rick Perry in Texas who has made the moral argument for party outreach to blacks (particularly in his recent speech at the American Legislative Exchange Council), there are multiple versions of Gov. Paul LePage who blames Maine’s drug problem on black men ("guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty") who impregnate his state’s young, white girls before leaving.

But if Republicans want to avoid the fate of becoming America’s exclusive party for conservative white people, they should start by talking to the Republican governors who know how to win black votes.

Theodore R. Johnson is an adjunct professor of public policy at Georgetown University. Leah Wright Rigueur is an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is the author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican.