Given that nine in ten African-American women voted for Democrats in 2014, it may be no surprise that a focus group of urban, female, African-Americans had mostly contempt for all things “Republican” or “conservative.” But what was shocking is that this group also, unprompted, uniformly opposed both extended unemployment benefits and a minimum wage increase, and volunteered conservative economic and moral arguments about their potentially destructive impact on job creation, costs, and conduct.
The focus group, done by the Polling Company on behalf of Independent Women's Voice in the lead up to the Louisiana runoff U.S. Senate election, confirmed what we already know about the GOP's brand: These women see the GOP as a clique of rich, white people seeking to consolidate wealth and power, indifferent to and uncaring about people like themselves. Characterizing something (a policy) or someone (a politician) as “Republican” or “conservative” immediately poisoned the well, even when it was a fellow African-American making the case. At best, the participants would consider any “Republican policy” with skepticism.
Yet their discussions of policies apart from political labels revealed more fundamental conservative instincts than the initial conversation—or conventional voter behavior—would ever suggest. Four participants had annual incomes below $20,000, five earned between $20,000- $29,000, and the other three had incomes between $50,000-$69,000, so it was unsurprising that they were most concerned by the issue of everyday affordability, like the cost of education, food, or fuel. Other top worries include crime, and jobs and unemployment.
When the moderator asked about extending unemployment benefits, participants worried about how extended benefits discourage people from looking for and accepting work opportunities. In fact, the GOP’s refusal to extend unemployment benefits was one of the few areas where the group approved of Republican actions.
Terry, a fifty-nine-year-old Landrieu voter, explained that too many people support Democrats because they are “looking for a handout” and Republicans want people to make a living for themselves. This was met with head-nods and agreement. They recognized the dangers of dependence: As one woman put it, there was a “problem with just giving stuff to people, there is a higher value to their sense of themselves if they earn it instead.” Melissa, a single, low-income, fifty-four year-old, noted that many people won’t take many available jobs, because they believe they are too good for them. “They ought to be working, trying something new or accepting a lower salary,” she said. Patrice, a forty-three year old married mother, explained that she believes people appreciate what they have more when they’ve earned it without a handout.
Similarly, when asked specifically about the proposed minimum wage increase—a key liberal platform which conventional wisdom assumes appeals to the Democratic base, and particularly minorities and lower-income constituents—these women uniformly disapproved, fearing it would backfire on their community.
Ashley, a thirty-one-year-old, never married mother of four, said, of raising the minimum wage, “It will raise the cost of everything else more than it'll increase what I get paid… We will end up even further behind.” Another participant pointed out that it would do nothing to help the unemployed get a job, and might even make it harder. Still another seemed to speak for many when she said that giving more money to someone who doesn’t have the skills to handle it is a waste. These women saw a higher minimum wage as leading to even less employment opportunity in their communities.
All this suggests that conservatives have plenty of common ground for building a relationship with these voters. But conservatives must take this outreach effort seriously and be prepared to invest in long term and genuine engagement campaigns. The usual crude political outreach tactics are an instant turnoff. Even a conservative African-American messenger didn't earn any trust or good will as he was assumed to be a front man for Republicans, and they were quick to notice and reject any message with any hint of stereotypes.
Insulting other politicians or attempting to blame a party for society's current problems likewise is a non-starter – for these women the locus of problems like unemployment were with the poor choices of those who were unemployed. They wanted forward-looking politicians who genuinely can show what they are doing to help the community—and they wanted those attentions to have begun long before election season.
There is much work to do to rebuild the conservative brand, but the good news is that many voters—even those most hostile to the Republican party and conservative candidates—have a natural understanding of the benefits of conservative policy ideas. That's something that can be the foundation of a lasting relationship.
Heather R. Higgins is president and CEO and Carrie Lukas is vice president of policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Voice.