For some time now, Republicans have expressed a desire to "reach out" to voters who aren't the prototypical Republican. If their party is made up almost entirely of white Christians, and largely older white Christians at that, they can continue to win congressional elections but have no hope of winning the White House any time soon in a country that grows less white and less Christian by the day.
Well, yesterday we had an example of a Republican successfully reaching out to voters who aren't traditionally Republican. Sen. Thad Cochran, who has been in Congress approximately since mastodons roamed the Gulf Coast, won his runoff election against angry Tea Partier Chris McDaniel in part by convincing Democrats to vote for him in the run-off election. And in Mississippi, Democrats means black voters (in 2008, the last presidential election for which we have Mississippi exit poll data, 88 percent of the state's whites voted for John McCain). So we had the rather unusual spectacle of a bunch of black Mississippians heading to the polls to support a conservative Republican, just after the 50th anniversary of the murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who were killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi for trying to register blacks to vote.
Cochran's election does not give Republicans some kind of template for "reaching out," because the circumstances were so unusual, particularly the part of Mississippi election law that allows members of one party to vote in another party's runoff as long as they didn't vote in the first primary. But it does show one thing: if you want to reach out, it has to have a purpose behind it.
Politicians spend a lot of time listening to different groups of voters, to convince them that they understand and care about their concerns. At times, that can make a real difference—show up to the meeting of the neighborhood council and spend an hour listening to their parochial complaints, and you might win a few votes just because they're happy you showed up. But on a larger scale, winning people over to your side requires something more than just making an appearance. You need to give people a concrete reason to join with you.
In Cochran's case, his outreach to black voters worked (with the important caveat that we don't yet know exactly how many blacks came to the runoff and whether he would have been able to win without them) because they found a common goal: stopping the march of an extreme version of conservatism. If you're a black Democrat in Mississippi, you long ago resigned yourself to the fact that all the statewide offices are going to be held by Republicans. But at least you know that an old-style pol like Cochran might offer you something, like some pork now and again, even if he represents a party that doesn't much care for you.
McDaniel, on the other hand, represents a different brand of conservatism, one that's much more hostile and aggressive. So when Cochran came calling, those black voters saw that joining with him, if only for a day, could serve their interests as well.
The next time Republicans try to reach out to some group whose support they currently don't enjoy in sufficient numbers—young people or Hispanics, for instance—they might think about just what they're offering. Is there a common purpose they can forge with that group, and one that outweighs the common purpose the group has with Democrats? If there isn't, then they're going to have an awfully tough time.