You've got to give this much to Rand Paul: Kentucky's junior senator is willing to do something almost unheard of in modern presidential politics, which is to make arguments that not everyone in his party already cares about. For this reason alone, Paul is probably the most interesting presidential hopeful out there, if not the most likely to succeed.
Paul's latest gambit, as you may have seen, involves an appeal to black voters, who generally have about as much attachment to the Republican Party as Donald Sterling has to his wife. This unusual courtship, which included a speech to the Urban League in which Paul actually quoted Malcolm X, led to a spate of media stories in the past week about a new contest between the parties to win over black voters in closely divided states.
All of which raises a couple of questions. First, do Democrats really have anything to worry about when it comes to the African-American vote? And second, is Paul really trying to steal those voters away?
The answers are yes and no, for more complex reasons than most of the analysis would have you believe.
Let's first consider this issue of whether Democrats could be considered vulnerable when it comes to the black vote. On the surface, the suggestion seems pretty absurd.
In any given election, after all, a Democrat can expect to corral something like 9 out of 10 votes cast by African-Americans. That's an outrageous percentage when you're talking about anything competitive in American life. I mean, if Apple had 90 percent of the phone or tablet market locked up, would anyone be jittery about the stock price?
The problem for Democrats is that their formula for success isn't like Apple's or any other company's, for that matter. It's more precarious than recent elections would suggest, and it relies on some highly unreliable trends.
Consider this: If exit polls can be believed (and this is not a given), Al Gore claimed about 90 percent of the black vote in 2000, and John Kerry won 88 percent in 2004, and yet neither man had any success in broadening the party's map of winnable states. Nor was that enough for either candidate to win some critical states with sizable African-American populations, like Ohio and Florida. (Yes, I know, Gore really won Florida and the Diebold machines stole Ohio from Kerry, but let's just stay in our little part of the space-time continuum for the moment.)
That's because neither candidate took more than 42 percent of white voters or 44 percent of men overall, or even 60 percent of traditionally Democratic union households. In other words, their wildly disproportionate share of the black vote wasn't enough to counteract their limited appeal in rural and exurban counties where large numbers of electoral votes are decided.
Then along came Barack Obama, who won an astounding 95 and 93 percent of the black vote in his two elections while also boosting turnout to all-time highs. For the first time ever, African-American turnout in 2012 was higher, in terms of percentage, than it was for white voters.
The difference between getting 90 and 95 percent of a market wouldn't be all that significant if you were selling iPads. But as a practical matter, that was the difference in making states like North Carolina, Indiana, Georgia and Virginia more competitive than they'd been in many years. This was especially true in Obama's second election, after the luster of "hope and change" among independent white voters had long since faded.
The problem for Democrats is that the spike among African-Americans almost certainly belonged to Obama personally and not to them; the party's otherworldly percentages in 2008 and 2012 were always going to return to being merely overwhelming after Obama left the scene. (The same thing is probably true, by the way, for Obama's historic turnout numbers among young voters.)
What this means for future Democratic candidates — even with other demographic trends working in their favor — is that the party is still reliant on a level of black support that might well prove unsustainable. Any Republican candidate who can muster 15 percent of the black vote can fundamentally shift the electoral math in a handful of the most competitive states.
This leads us to the second question, which is whether Paul seriously aspires to become that candidate. I don't know the guy, and I'm not going to suggest he isn't sincere about wanting to woo black voters should he become the nominee. But his more immediate audience here, I'm betting, is the segment of the Republican primary electorate — including the crucial independents who can vote in some states — that is worried about the party's ever-narrowing appeal.
Paul is nothing if not sharp, and he knows that pendulums always swing in party politics. Despite all the extremist rhetoric of the tea party crowd, there will be a hunger among Republican voters in 2016 to somehow recalibrate and mainstream the party — just as there was in 2000, when George W. Bush and John McCain battled over who was the more inclusive and reform-minded candidate.
This is a party, after all, that in the last presidential election, running against a vulnerable incumbent at a time of severe economic stress, lost women by something like 11 percentage points, Latinos by 44, Asians by 47, young voters by 23, gay voters by 54, self-described moderates by 15, and those making under $50,000 by 22. (Hey, it's not like Latino and Asian populations are growing at all. Oh, wait…)
Most Republican voters don't warm to the image of a whites-only, male-dominated, radicalized party any more than most Democrats would. And Paul's chief vulnerability as a candidate, despite his impressive showings in early and meaningless polls, is that, like his father before him, he's associated with a more fringe kind of conservatism. He's the guy who publicly doubted the constitutionality of the Civil Right Act. He's the guy who thinks the federal government should get out of the governing business.
Paul needs to demystify himself a little, to show Republicans that he won't lead the party off the electoral cliff on which it's already teetering. He needs to reassure the less ideologically pure in his own party, just as Ronald Reagan masterfully did in 1980, when a lot of conservatives worried that he was too extreme for the rest of the country.
And this, aside from some principle in which I'm sure he genuinely believes, is why Paul is going out of his way to team up with Democrats like Cory Booker on reforming the criminal justice system, while giving speeches to black audiences that may never vote for him. It's not simply or even mostly about redefining his party; it's about redefining himself within it.
None of us knows, of course, just where Paul or the primary electorate will be by the end of 2015. But if you ask me, he's headed in the right direction for the coming Republican moment. If nothing else, black voters and Rand Paul have this much in common: You'd be ill-advised to take either of them for granted.