Let’s start with what we know. FiveThirtyEight has done an analysis that shows that Thad Cochran’s campaign benefited from around 30,000 additional black votes in the runoff election as compared to the initial primary. If you were given only this piece of information and knew nothing of how politics works in the deep South, you might well sound like credulous naif and establishment stooge Rand Paul and exclaim, “good for Thad Cochran for conducting some black voter outreach!” However, to properly understand this story, you have to understand the way the phenomenon known as “walking around money” really works.
It is a little known and reported upon fact but if you are a Democrat in the South, you can increase your black voter turnout in direct correlation with the money you spend with certain (not all!) well placed black pastors. I first encountered this phenomenon working campaigns in Arkansas in the mid-2000s and have had these pastors literally tell me how it works. The pastor in question will promise Candidate X to turn out Y number of votes in exchange for being paid by the campaign as a “consultant” for black voter outreach. In exchange for this cash money, the Democrat candidate gets three levels of service – 1) the pastor in question will speak openly and repeatedly from his pulpit encouraging his congregants to get out and vote for the candidate, a clear and completely ignored violation of federal tax law, 2) some portion of his consulting fee will be used as gas money/etc to use the church van and other transportation to make sure his voters get to the polls and 3) where extra encouragement is needed, the votes will be literally paid for either in the form of actual cash or meals bought, etc.
It is a corrupt, immoral, and illegal system that is a well known fact of life among political operatives here in the South. Everyone knows it is occurring but it is virtually impossible to get the media to report on the phenomenon or any regulatory agency or prosecutor to investigate it because of the specter of being accused of racially targeted voter suppression. This is the background against which we need to examine the tactics of Haley Barbour and Thad Cochran in last week’s runoff. Barbour and his PAC have admitted to engaging some of the well-known fixers in Mississippi, although as all such political operators do, he would deny having knowledge of anything other supporting GOTV efforts:
That includes outreach to black ministers, who in turn encourage their parishioners to vote for Cochran. Pete Perry, a Republican strategist working for Mississippi Conservatives, told The New York Times recently that he’s helping the group with African-American outreach, including ministers, and spending in the “five-figure range” to do so.
Often called “walking around money,” such spending goes for transportation, gas money, and paying people to walk precincts and advocate for a candidate. Mr. Barbour is unapologetic.
“When my FEC [Federal Election Commission] report comes out it will be plain, we‘ve invested in a lot of folks, black and white, to work in their communities on behalf of Thad Cochran,” says Barbour.
A lot of people across the Internet this past week have focused on the content of certain flyers that were allegedly handed out, or certain radio commercials that allegedly aired, or certain robocalls that were allegedly placed. It would surprise me zero to learn that as part of this effort, the Cochran/Barbour machine engaged in deliberate race-baiting advertising of all manner and varieties, but to me that misses the point.
The point is this: Mississippi black voters do not tend to buck the trend that has long been established elsewhere in the South. In 2008, the year of Cochran’s last election, they voted for Obama by an astounding margin of 98-2. Nothing in Cochran’s past suggests that he alone among old, white Southern Republicans has a special claim to black voter loyalty or a cache of black voter support upon which he could draw with any sort of legitimate appeal. If he did, those voters would have turned out in the initial primary that he lost to McDaniel.
30,000 additional black votes is an awful lot of additional black votes, and it’s something that needs some explanation where no obvious one exists. So we are left with a reality in which a known process exists by which many of these votes are literally for sale and we have Cochran’s head hatchet man Haley Barbour essentially confessing on the record that he is going to be funneling money to the main fixers in this corrupt scheme.
So what we have to ask ourselves is whether it is more reasonable to believe that in the span of a month, Thad Cochran was able to miraculously convince the most die-hard Democratic voting block in the country that he deserved their votes on the merits, or whether he simply paid for the votes. You’re certainly free to believe the former, but if you do, I have some oceanfront property in Arizona I’d like to interest you in.