Party of Lincoln chips away at black support for Democrats
Washington — Until 1936 the party of Abraham Lincoln got the majority of the black vote in the United States. Then the Democrats stepped in, and they have kept the loyalty of most blacks ever since. But the Republican Party has not given up. The GOP is making an effort to woo black voters and candidates, hoping to boost black support in 1986 and '88 and stimulate a gradual trend back to the Republicans. GOP officials say they are encouraged by recent developments:
Polls show blacks giving President Reagan a higher approval rating than three and four years ago -- though the vast majority still disapproves of how he is handling his job.
More blacks are showing an interest in the Republican Party and in running for office under the GOP ticket. Among recent converts, William Lucas, Wayne County Executive in the state of Michigan, has switched to the GOP and is due today to announce his candidacy for governor of the state.
``Interest is definitely growing,'' says Lawrence Dillard, black political liaison for the Republican National Committee. ``In the past two weeks 27 people have come in talking about running for office at the federal, state, and local level.''
As the economy has improved and as more blacks have moved into the middle- and upper-income classes, some have turned to the GOP as the party most likely to foster jobs and economic growth. But this is far from a surge or major shift.
Mr. Reagan captured only an estimated 11 percent of the black vote in 1984. If the GOP could notch up this figure to 15, it would be doing well, say political analysts. It is estimated that only 5 to 10 percent of all elected black officials around the country are Republican.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Gallup Organization, says that his polls show black approval for Reagan's performance in the mid-20s, up from ratings in the teens in 1983 and '84. ``But we see no real trend,'' says Mr. Kohut. ``There is some progress for the GOP, but vast majority of blacks still disapproves of Reagan's performance.''
Republican strategists point to several factors that offer potential for garnering black support: One is the fact that many black politicians are disgruntled at the way they were treated in the Democratic Party in 1984. Another is the baby-boom phenomenon, in which there are many potential black leaders 25 to 40 who are well educated and will not necessarily line up with the Democrats. Finally, there is the growing black middle class to which the GOP can pitch its appeal.
Republican political planners know it is an uphill struggle. Lee Atwater, deputy director of the 1984 Reagan-Bush reelec- tion campaign and now chairman of Vice-President George Bush's political-action committee, says it is crucial for the party to develop a cadres of black leaders and get them elected to office.
``We can't just expect that since these factors are out there they will create a conducive atmosphere,'' says Mr. Atwater. ``We will not get votes unless we carry a message. It's our burden to prove that we do want to get blacks involved. So it's a big, tough job not a ripe plum for the picking.''
The Reagan administration is not generally perceived as one whose aims and interests are those of the black population. According to surveys by the Urban League and other groups, most blacks see the President's economic policies, including stringent cuts in domestic programs, as harming low-income families, above all black families, and benefiting largely the wealthy.
Especially during his first term, Reagan seemed to convey a lack of interest in or knowledge of black concerns. He sought tax-exempt status for a segregated school, opposed establishing a Martin Luther King Day, and sought to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His administration has also tried to roll back affirmative action. Even now he is considering an executive order outlawing the use of numerical goals and timetables by federal contractors in minority-hiring programs.
Under pressure from Republicans in Congress, however, Reagan changed course on a number of issues. He came around to extending the Voting Rights Act. He imposed sanctions on South Africa. And he made himself highly visible in celebrating Martin Luther King Day, including inviting Coretta Scott King to the White House.
If most blacks remain skeptical that the President cares about the problems of blacks, GOP strategists feel that the sharp edge of animosity toward the President has been dulled. ``The bottom line,'' says Mr. Dillard, ``is that, when you look back on history, Ronald Reagan signed the [Martin Luther King Day] bill into law. And the longest extension of the Voting Rights Act came in this administration.''
The congressional elections this year will be watched closely as a bellwether of black attitudes. The Republicans are not likely to make enormous inroads in black support, but they are expected to chip away at the now-monolithic support for the Democrats.
Acording to an aide, Mr. Lucas switched to the GOP because the Democratic Party had ``abandoned its ideals'' and become too controlled by special interests, especially organized labor. ``In the Democratic Party he would not have gotten the nomination for governor. ``In the Republican Party he has a good chance at it.''