Does Cain’s Florida Win Prove the GOP Isn’t Racist?

Does Cain’s Florida Win Prove the GOP Isn’t Racist?

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GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain’s wipeout of the GOP presidential field in the Florida straw poll got much attention partly because he was so far behind presumptive GOP presidential front runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

But it also got attention because it seemed to refute the relentless charge that the GOP is racist. Cain is black, grew up poor, and did not shy away from talking about black issues during his stint as a radio broadcaster. Despite his unabashed spout of ultra conservative views, he doesn’t shirk away from his blackness. His win in Florida -- not a Northern state -- among a virtually lilywhite slate of voters does seem to make a case that the knock of racism against the GOP is overblown.

It doesn’t. True, at times, straw polls provide some gauge of the support a presidential contender has among the general party electorate. Reagan in 1979, George H.W. Bush in 1987 and Bob Dole in 1995 won the Florida straw poll and went on to win the GOP presidential nomination. But they were seasoned, name-recognizable GOP stalwarts, and the clear frontrunners for the nomination. Cain could hardly be considered any of those things. And the slightly more than 2,500 voters that bothered to cast a ballot in the straw poll could hardly be considered a representative sample of the GOP electorate.

In any case, straw poll votes are pure symbolism. More times than not the front running, that is, electable candidates spend little time, energy or resources bothering to court those likely to participate in a straw tally. Romney spent minimal time in the state, and Perry took it seriously only because as the new kid on the presidential block -- and with dismal showings in the GOP presidential debates, as well as mounting questions about his conservatism -- Florida was his chance to get momentum going again in his campaign. That’s why Cain sneaked to the top. It was more a message to Perry that there are a lot of conservatives who have serious doubts about him and his candidacy. Cain was the perfect foil to register that doubt.

The real name of the game is the primaries, where GOP voters will turn out en masse and determine who will be their standard bearer.

Cain’s candidacy, race and win in Florida meant little because he likely will not be around for the long gruel of the primaries. Even if he is, he will be a minor footnote on the ballot, when the serious business of courting voters, state officials and party leaders begins in Florida and other key primary states. But let’s say that he’s still a viable candidate during the primary run and has a real shot at being the GOP presidential choice, the evidence is strong that Cain wouldn’t get very far, and the issue then would be his race.

In a 2006 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a Yale political economist found that white Republicans were 25 percentage points more likely to cross over and vote for a Democratic senatorial candidate against a black Republican foe.

The study also found that in the nearly 20-year stretch, from 1982 to 2000, when the GOP candidate was black, the greater majority of white independent voters backed the white candidate. In the November 2010 mid-term elections, more than 30 black GOP candidates ran in congressional primaries. The majority of voters, or a significant percentage of them, in these districts were white. The black GOP candidates all went down to crushing defeat with two exceptions: congressional candidates Allen West in Florida and Tim Scott in South Carolina. Both got a majority of white votes and easily beat their Democratic opponents. But West and Scott won in lockdown GOP districts and against weak, under-funded Democratic opponents. Their wins were regional wins with absolutely no national implications.

Former three-term New Hampshire Governor John Sununu put his finger firmly on the inner pulse of mainstream GOP conservative sentiment during an interview he did earlier this year, after hearing candidate’s views on what Cain's likely fate would be if he ever made it into the GOP presidential contender box. Sununu, one-time chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush and previously chair of New Hampshire's GOP, said he was willing to listen to Cain, but that his pick for the GOP 2012 presidential contender would have to be the second coming of Ronald Reagan, as well as a politician with experience.

There’s much hyperbole in the Reagan analogy. None of the current crop of GOP contenders will ever be mistaken for Reagan in style, charisma and virtual party deification. But there’s truth to the Reagan analogy when it’s remembered that a big part of Reagan’s appeal was his racially coded pandering on states’ rights and his veiled anti-civil rights appeals. A black GOP candidate, no matter how rabidly conservative, would be unable to totally overcome, let alone allay, the racial antipathies and fears that always lurk among a large segment of conservative white voters when the White House is at stake.

No matter how many meaningless straw polls Cain wins, he won’t be the GOP candidate to change that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on KTYM Radio Los Angeles streamed on podcast on and internet TV broadcast on
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