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Chris Christie's Surprising Role Model For Minority Outreach

Ronald Reagan walks over rubble in a South Bronx lot in August 1980.
Ronald Reagan walks over rubble in a South Bronx lot in August 1980.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says he can teach national Republicans an important lesson: If they want to appeal to voters beyond their traditional conservative base, they need to go to where those voters are.

As he made the rounds of Sunday's Washington talk shows, Christie explained his rationale to Fox News' Chris Wallace:

"You know, at the end of the day, Chris, here's what people in Washington, D.C., don't understand," he said. "If you want to win a vote by that kind of margin, if you want to attract the majority of the Hispanic vote, if you want to nearly triple your African-American vote, you need to show up. You need to go into those neighborhoods. You need to campaign in places.

"I'll give you a perfect example, Chris. I did a town hall meeting while I was governor about a year and a half ago in the city of Irvington, N.J., in Essex County. I got 4.7 percent of the vote there in 2009. There were more people in the church [where] I did the town hall than voted for me in 2009. That's the way the Republican Party will make itself more relevant to a whole much broader group of folks. And the fact is, that's exactly what Ronald Reagan would have done — and did do — when he was campaigning for president."

Really? Reagan did that, some might ask incredulously? Actually, he did.

The Reagan many people remember is not the Reagan who did outreach to minority voters. Rather, it was the one who made a 1980 campaign appearance in Philadelphia, Miss., not far from where three young civil rights activists were murdered in 1964, and spoke of supporting "states' rights," a term linked to antebellum slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Reagan is also remembered by some for his use of "welfare queen" as a go-to example of dependency and for not supporting a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, though he eventually signed the legislation into law. And he was something of a dead-ender when it came to supporting apartheid South Africa.

But Reagan did indeed make a play for African-Americans in 1980. True, he turned down an invitation to speak to the NAACP that year, but he accepted one from the National Urban League, where he got a polite reception.

(According to exit polls that year, Reagan received 14 percent of the black vote and 37 percent of the Hispanic vote, doing somewhat worse with blacks but much better with Hispanics than President Gerald Ford in 1976.)

In a little remembered incident during the 1980 campaign, Reagan also visited the South Bronx. That reception was less polite than the urban league's, to put it mildly. He wound up being heckled and reflecting some of that anger right back at the locals.

Which helps to explain why politicians, especially those who run for president, tend not to venture into politically hostile territory. There's always the risk it could backfire.

Christie had his own such moment. For instance, at a town hall-style meeting at a black Baptist church in Paterson, N.J., earlier this year, Christie responded to a black heckler who repeatedly shouted, "Fix the public schools" by saying, "Yeah, I hear you, boy, I hear you."

Some Christie critics posted the video as evidence of the governor's racial insensitivity at best.

But many African-American voters gave Christie the benefit of the doubt, finding him guilty of nothing more than using a common exclamation at an awkward moment. That conclusion was most likely aided by Christie's adroit handling of that particular heckler with respect and patience. It helps explain how the governor won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote and 21 percent of the black vote.

Christie's argument that such a strategy could work nationally remains to be seen. Christie had the benefit of being a very popular governor during those town hall meetings of which he's so proud.

In a presidential race he would have to first make it through primaries that are likely to force him to move rightward. He might be forced to take positions on issues that might make outreach to voters beyond the GOP base more difficult.

Also, a presidential candidate's most precious commodity is time. Visiting voters unlikely to vote for you comes at the expense of campaigning among those most likely to vote for you. In a national hunt for 270 electoral votes, especially a race that's close, that could be critical.

But if Christie were the GOP nominee, his outreach strategy could force his Democratic counterpart to fight for voters previously thought to be safely in the Democratic Party column. And it's a good day for any presidential campaign when it can get the opposing party's candidate to spend time and money on defense.

Meanwhile, Christie is acting on a reality many in his party are still just paying lip service to. While Reagan didn't need minority votes to win the White House, Republicans going forward will increasingly need to attract such voters. In that respect, Christie's ahead of the curve.

By the way, the cynical might say that Reagan's South Bronx visit had more to do with underscoring the alleged fecklessness of President Jimmy Carter (who had visited the same New York City neighborhood a few years earlier promising economic uplift) than it did with Reagan's genuine minority outreach. Still, Reagan did it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.