Almost one in five young black men voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, even though many supported Barack Obama four years earlier—but few of those voters are coming back to the GOP in the age of Trump.
A young black man at a Mitt Romney campaign event in 2012. Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis via Getty Images
Edgar Pabon, who just turned 30, wasn't around for the 1968 presidential race, but it's weighing on his mind. Back then, the race was between Richard Nixon, the pragmatic but sleazy Republican; Hubert Humphrey, the middle-of-the-road Democrat; and the loathsome segregationist George Wallace. To Pabon, 2016 feels like 1968 without Humphrey: inevitable corruption versus white nationalism, Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump.
"Do I vote for Nixon over George Wallace? I'd say yeah," says Pabon, a software engineer for Amazon. "I'm going to vote for Hillary Clinton. It feels like I am voting for Richard Nixon over George Wallace."
Pabon's support for Clinton, lukewarm though it may be, was inconceivable a year ago. Pabon was one of the many young black men who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but Mitt Romney in 2012. In that latter election, a surprising 19 percent of black men under 30 voted against the reelection of the country's first black president, up from 6 percent who voted Republican in 2008. (By contrast, 98 percent of young black women supported Obama in 2012.)
This gave some in the GOP hope that the party of Lincoln could reach a new generation of black voters; the post-election report party leaders released after 2012 listed black people as one of the many minority communities it needed to reach out to if it wanted to stay viable as a national party. "To help with our messaging and connecting with non-traditional Republican voters, an allied group could produce videos of minorities, women, and young voters explaining why they are Republicans and post them on the Internet," the report helpfully suggested.
Pabon could have been a face in that sort of video. So could Kellen Curry, another member of the 19 percent Romney black male vote. "The Republican Party had an opportunity to cement my support for the long-term," says Curry. "The GOP had me in 2012."
The Republicans lost Curry—and many others like him—for a simple reason: Trump. According to one August poll, the candidate has the support of just 2 percent of black people aged 18–30, though many aren't enthusiastic about Clinton either.
"Now Republicans have to start all over again in 2020. Now they've broken whatever juice they had in the beginning, and now they've got to re-sell the product," Curry says. "Party leaders often say the party did not have a problem with race, but the problem was talking about race. What Trump has brought to the surface is that yes, the party does not only have a problem with talking about race but also with race itself."
Curry and Pabon have a lot in common. They are both military men who turned 30 this year. Pabon served in the Army, while Curry, an Air Force Academy graduate, served two tours in Afghanistan. They both remained committed to the Republicans at the start of the 2016 campaign. Pabon originally supported Kentucky senator Rand Paul in the primary, and when Paul dropped out, he backed Ohio governor John Kasich. But when Trump became the nominee, Pabon was the one who dropped out. Last week, he officially changed his partisan affiliation from Republican to independent. "I no longer want to be a part of the party anymore because of this campaign," he says. "Donald Trump's politics of exclusion and divisiveness leaves a lot of people like me feeling like they can't support the party and feel completely alienated."
I told my students at New York University—I teach a class on the 2016 campaign—about Russell Ansley, and they almost didn't believe he exists. Ansley is black, Baptist, gay, Texan, and a conservative Republican. For these young people, who lean left, his views seemed misguided, a violation of their views of the world.
A hand shot up.
"Why do you hate yourself?" a student said. "That is what I want to ask him directly. That is what I want to know now."
When I tell Ansley—another Obama-Romney voter—about the class's response to him, he isn't surprised. Liberals—black and white—just can't understand him.
"I think African Americans traditionally see themselves as a type of underdog," Ansley says. "Conservatism is not for a weakling. It's not for a person who feels down and out, or disenfranchised. It's for the person that feels very empowered, very in control of his life, and wants to keep it that way."
The popular view of conservatism, with its emphasis on self-reliance and individualism, can appeal to people of all skin colors and sexualities—anyone who resents the notion of being the underdog, as Ansley puts it. Reginald Grant Jr., another young black Obama-Romney voter, sees his success in the Marines as an affront to the notion that he could ever be an underdog. "I weighed about 130 pounds coming out of high school—130 [and] about 5'11—so I was real small," says Grant , now a high school history teacher in Houston. "A lot of people were telling me, 'The Marine Corps is real hard, and I'm not sure if you can do it. It's kind of tough.' I've always just approached things like, 'Oh, I can do this.' When I joined the debate team in high school, people were telling me, 'Oh, you know that's for really smart people, are you sure you can do that?' As if I didn't have the intellectual capability to be able to express myself in thought."
His middle-class upbringing underscored another message: "There are people out there who are going to try to prevent you from being able to accomplish your dreams. There are going to be people who are going to say that you don't deserve to be here, but you gotta show them that you're better, you're smarter, you're stronger," Grant says. "There's no one that can tell you you don't deserve to be here. You're better than them."
Grant sees this attitude as a natural fit for the GOP—he's definitely the sort of man who strongly believes in bootstrapping your way to a better life. But in 2004, his high school debate teacher, also a Republican, showed him Obama's speech from that year's Democratic Convention, the moment that turned the then Illinois senator into a national political star. Grant continued to wear his George W. Bush button on his sports jacket, and, years later, organized a Republican club at Texas Southern, the historically black college he attended, but he felt there was something special about Obama, and was drawn to his candidacy in 2008.
"What I liked about Obama was that I felt that he was an outsider," says Grant. "I thought that he was a little bit more moderate on a lot of the issues than other Democrats. He had said in the past more things about unity coming together as a country, that whole rhetoric and his story. So that all fed into it. He talked about cutting spending... talked about how marriage was an institution between a man and a woman. He talked doing better for our troops and taking care of them at home as well as abroad. Those things resonated with me being a veteran."
Theodore Johnson, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who studies black voting patterns, is not surprised that black men are more prone than black women to embrace a partisan identity that attempts to place individualism over race. "When you compare the genders, black men's allegiance to party was about a third less than black women," Johnson, whose most recent study measured the factors that mattered most to black voters. "So even my dad, who is a Republican—he's an Obama Republican—he was brought up under the view that you only get what you work, and he was the son of a Protestant minister and the constant work ethic, the self-determination, the bootstrap mantra is ingrained in him completely, as it is for black women as well. But that resonates in a different way for black men than it does for black women, because masculinity sort of skewed the racial experience in America. Black men have a way of expressing their masculinity that is wholly reliant on their ability to make it on their own."
Making it on your own can mean starting your own business, or pushing yourself to be your own boss with more freedom from white authority. As Johnson notes, it can also mean resorting to illegal activities when you can't find a traditional job. "They do what they got to do not because they're prone to criminality, but they're prone to masculinity and the idea that I just need a space and the ability to compete on my own merit, and not be held down by favoritism or racism or whatever it was," he says. "There is a real belief in the American dream, and in many ways, black men may harbor it deeper than black women do... Whatever's in our DNA, or in our historical experience, it makes us really gravitate toward individual achievement and wanting to attain stuff on our own. That was the Romney message. And that's what that whole party sort of stands for."
For many Obama-Romney voters, Donald Trump's outreach to black Americans is another example of a presidential candidate talking the tired language of black victimhood.
Two years into the Obama administration, Grant regretted his vote. Obama betrayed him, he says, by embracing gay marriage and big government spending. In Grant's view, the candidate who said he was going to bring everyone together failed to work with the Republicans in Congress. For Pabon, the problem was the way Obama took too much personal credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, which was against the principles of leadership Pabon had learned in the military. "You always give the credit to your men," he says.
But for many Obama-Romney voters, Donald Trump's outreach to black Americans is another example of a presidential candidate talking the tired language of black victimhood. Trump's recent appeals to black voters are more raw and more flawed (his bloated black unemployment figures are simply wrong) than the traditional Democratic pitches. "You're living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed—what the hell do you have to lose?" the candidate said at a rally in August.
That rhetoric could be seen as a distant cousin of a white liberal saying a gay black Republican must hate himself. You poor things. You don't know what is best for you.
Trump also ignores the invisible black majority of African Americans living above the poverty line. He situates African American life on a planet of black pathology. "Trump speaks to black people in a way that's completely foreign to me," says Curry. "He puts everything in a context that says, 'Here's what I'm going to do for you.' He's not talking to me. I don't live in the hood or in the ghetto. I don't fear for my life. Look, I get we have a solidarity amongst black people in America, but beyond that solidarity lies the individual as well... When he talks about race, it clearly demonstrates he's just unaware. He's still ignorant about race, as he is on a lot of other policy issues."
To many of the 19 percent of young black men who backed Romney, Obama's view of race also has severe limitations. Though they did not say this in so many words, their view of him suggests the idea of the president as a symbol of white paternalism in blackface. For them, he's there to help fix those black people—those underdogs—a notion that they reject as antithetical to true equality.
"Part of viewing yourself as an underdog can be dangerous and self-marginalizing as you kind of wallow in some sort of self pity," says Curry. "As I was growing up, I had high self-esteem and always had very much of a competitive kind of spirit. I always tried to be in the pack and ahead of the pack and never viewed myself as someone who is inherently an underdog."
Curry does not deny that race is a factor in American life, especially when it comes to the police racially profiling men like him. Grant admits that he wanted to go into law enforcement after he finished the Marines, but his family was against it because of the racial issues surrounding policing. Pabon also acknowledges the persistence of racism in law enforcement—he has seen the same shocking videos of police violence everyone else has, read about the same not guilty verdicts for cops accused of wrongdoing. But though he's generally supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, he refuses to see his own black life as reduced or marginalized by those depressing tragedies.
"In general, I mean, I have the opportunity to succeed like most other people in this country," says Pabon. "Do I think that it's not exactly equal for everybody in this country? Yeah, absolutely. And do I think it's a little harder sometimes because I'm black? Sure. But it's not something I really try to focus on."
Perhaps there is a sense of liberation in an assumption of a partisan identity that removes the prominence of race (in Ansley's case, sexuality as well) as the dominant factor in shaping partisanship. Putting their affinity for, say, fiscal conservatism above racial solidarity empowers their humanism from the perspective of these men. Mitt Romney's candidacy gave them a chance to embrace this feeling. Donald Trump, with all his racialized bluster, undermines the gains Romney made with the 19 percenters.
"As much as I might have disagreed with Obama about certain policies, I respect the man."
If the election results mirror the current state of the polls, Trump will lose, maybe very badly. The 19 percent of young black men Romney won four years ago but who rejected the Republicans will be a part of that defeat, and possibly a major piece of the GOP's efforts to rebuild after losing a third straight presidential election.
Ansley and Grant, who voted Republican before the 2008 election, plan to cast their ballots for Trump, making them part of a tiny minority of young black men who feel that way. Partisan identities, studies have found, are formed young and stay with voters for a long time, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Pabon and Curry, those rare voters who are actually independent and might vote for either party depending on the candidate—see Trumpism as a tragedy in the party's effort to court voters like them. Curry voted early for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, while Pabon plans to hold his nose and settle for Clinton.
"As much as I might have disagreed with Obama about certain policies, I respect the man," says Pabon. "I liked the fact that he brought a certain amount of decency to the office, and he treated it with that. I don't have the same level of respect for Trump and do not imagine I would if he were president."
David J. Dent, an author and associate professor at New York University, holds a joint appointment at the Arthur Carter Journalism Institute and in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis. He is editor of the blog bushobamaamerica.com and the author of In Search of Black America.