Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 2004 / 20 Shevat 5764
What a friend Bush has in Sharpton
The Rev. Al Sharpton's presidential campaign, odd from
its very beginning, has proved one thing: He can attract a
lot of votes in black districts as long as the other
candidates don't show up.
Sharpton, who came in fourth in Michigan's Democratic
caucuses on Saturday finished a strong second in two
black districts in Detroit. He was the only candidate to
campaign vigorously in Detroit's black neighborhoods. At
a forum in a prominent black Baptist church on the
evening before the caucuses, for example, he was the
only candidate to show up.
Similarly, Sharpton carried the District of Columbia's
black precincts in a straw vote a few weeks earlier, a
process that does not result in sending any delegates to
the party's national convention. Howard Dean won the
But in South Carolina, despite Sharpton's exhaustive
campaigning there over the past year, he lost big time--even among black voters.
Despite a third-place finish, he won less than 10 percent of the total vote and less than
20 percent of the black vote and failed to win any delegates.
He finished behind John Edwards (45 percent) and John F. Kerry (30 percent), but
ahead of retired Gen. Wesley Clark (7 percent), Howard Dean (5 percent), Joseph
Lieberman (2 percent) and Dennis Kucinich (0 percent).
As a master of spin, Sharpton put a happy face on these little victories as if they
actually meant something. He's not about to let a little matter like a lack of votes
prevent him from declaring victory.
"I think that this is a tremendous boost to our campaign," he said, noting that, at least,
he ended up ahead of Clark, Dean, Lieberman and Kucinich despite having almost no
But be not deceived. The Harlem minister with the James Brown coiffure does not
have mo-mentum. He has no-mentum.
South Carolina was a telling blow. With its large black population, large enough to
account for about half the Democratic turnout, Sharpton had positioned South Carolina
to be his strongest state.
Yet most black voters decided their best bet was Kerry or Edwards. In fact, if you define
"black candidates" not by the color of their skin but the color of their supporters, two
white men, Kerry and Edwards, appear to have made better black candidates than
Why? Based on exit polls, the concerns of black voters were pretty much the same that
we have heard from other Democrats this season: The issue of electability trumped all
They didn't want to waste their votes on someone who posed less than a credible
threat to George W. Bush's presidency.
That's not what black Democrats or very many other Democrats want this year, the
year of the "Anybody But Bush" movement.
Black voters, like other Democrats, approached this election with a seriousness that
the Sharpton candidacy, like that of Kucinich, lacks. His one-liners are entertaining. So
was his little James Brown soft-shoe on "Saturday Night Live." But the stakes of this
election are too high, in the view of many black voters, to waste a vote on a
smooth-talking pastor who appears to be out to make a point and a name for himself
and not much else.
If anything, Sharpton lost out to an even bigger energizer of black voters, a man named
George W. Bush.
A lot of black Democrats still feel cheated by the long-count in Florida in 2000 and they
are hardly alone. Many also feel outraged that the Bush presidency turned from a vow
of "compassionate conservatism" to a "No Child Left Behind" program that appears
destined to leave scores of kids behind in schools funded even more poorly than they
Black Americans are not monolithic. They don't rush to vote for a candidate simply
because he or she is black. Rev. Sharpton has discovered that. But when any group of
people feels put upon as a group, one should not be surprised to see those people
respond as a group.
That's politics. People vote for what they perceive to be in their best interest. White
men, for example, consistently vote more than two-to-one in favor of white presidential
candidates. Only 24 percent of white males consider themselves Democrats, a poll
released last year by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council found.
Consciously or subconsciously, race remains a powerful factor in American politics.
But that does not mean blacks will vote for just any black candidate, any more than
whites will vote for just any white candidate. That may not be the lesson that the Rev. Al
Sharpton intended to teach us, but it is one he appears to have learned the hard way.
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