Ronald Reagan, who narrowly lost the Republican party’s presidential nomination in 1976, realized that his party needed to broaden its base into a durable coalition that would help its members win and maintain office at the local, state, and national levels. Speaking before a gathering of conservatives in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 15, 1977, just five days before Jimmy Carter took the oath of office, Reagan emphasized this point, stating:
The New Republican party I envision is still going to be the party of Lincoln and that means we are going to have to come to grips with what I consider to be a major failing of the party: its failure to attract the majority of black voters.
It’s time black America and the New Republican party move toward each other and create a situation in which no black vote can be taken for granted.
Throughout the late 1970s, Reagan continued to exhort fellow Republicans to face this problem, and he worked to win the black vote after he won his party’s presidential nomination in 1980. Speaking at the Urban League convention in New York on Aug. 5, 1980, he proclaimed, “I am committed to the protection and enforcement of the civil rights of black Americans. This commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose.”
Two days earlier, Reagan had given a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in the town of Philadelphia, Miss., where civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered in 1964. His statement that “I believe in states’ rights” concerned Rev. Andrew Young, who said, “Code words like ‘states’ rights’ and symbolic places like Philadelphia, Miss., leave me cold.” Young asked, “Is Reagan saying that he intends to do everything he can to turn the clock back to the Mississippi justice of 1964?”
For decades, Reagan had discussed the tenets he considered to be fundamental to the constitutional functioning of the United States. Instead of using code words in his speeches, Reagan expressed his deeply held principles in straightforward language.
Did these words hurt him as he was attempting to extend his reach? Not with the majority of voters.
On Election Day 1980, Reagan outperformed Carter among most categories of U.S. citizens, winning 51 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41 percent. In 1976, Jewish voters had supported Carter two-to-one; in 1980, only 45 percent of them backed Carter, with 39 percent voting for Reagan. Carter’s support from Protestants diminished from 46 percent in 1976 to 39 percent in 1980; 54 percent of Protestants voted for Reagan. In 1976, 57 percent of Catholics voted for Carter, but in 1980, Carter’s portion of the Catholic vote was 46 percent while Reagan’s was 47 percent.
In the 1980 race, Reagan was backed by 26 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and 86 percent of Republicans, and he was popular with many other categories of voters — except for nonwhites, who remained loyal to the incumbent. In 1976, 85 percent of nonwhites voted for Carter; in 1980, he won 86 percent of the nonwhite vote. In 1980, Reagan received 10 percent of the nonwhite vote while John Anderson, the third-party candidate, won 2 percent.
No Republican president or presidential candidate has successfully ascertained an effective way to extend the party’s reach to black voters. Discussing principles such as the rights of states outside of a larger political context has the sound of code language and does not broaden one’s base. Reagan understood that fact and his fall 1980 campaign focused sharply on the economy and defense. Though it was too late to sway the black vote, Reagan was building upon his vision of a Republican party organized around conservative principles as a means of broadening the tent. It was a vision he talked about frequently as he assumed leadership of his party and the conservative movement in the late 1970s.
Reagan established the rhetorical base for a broader tent. It is time for the party to realize his vision.
— Kiron K. Skinner is the co-author of Reagan, in His Own Hand and other books. She is on the advisory board of the George W. Bush Oral History Project, teaches international relations at Carnegie Mellon University, and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.