Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 2004 /6 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
A surprising black bump for Bush
Could President Bush receive a surprisingly large black turnout on Election Day? Considering recent history, the idea sounds about as likely as pop star Michael Jackson receiving a Man of the Year Award from the Children's Defense Fund. But elections can produce unexpected results. That's why we hold them.
This week I found myself blinking my eyes in disbelief over two major polls that showed a big bump for Bush among likely black voters.
A New York Times poll released Tuesday showed that among likely voters, 47 percent support Bush, 45 percent are for Sen. John Kerry and 2 percent for Ralph Nader.
But in the race breakdown, the Bush-Cheney ticket is buoyed by an amazing 17 percent from African-Americans. (Kerry receives 76 percent of the black voters and Nader only 1 percent.)
Although 17 percent is still less than one in five, it is more than twice the tiny 8 percent turnout that the Bush-Cheney ticket received in the 2000 election.
Also on Tuesday, a poll with a much larger sample of black voters was released by the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a leading think tank on black-oriented issues. It showed a very similar African-American boost for the Bush-Cheney ticket: 18 percent versus 69 for Kerry and 2 percent for Nader.
Since the center's poll proved remarkably prescient in the 2000 presidential election, showing 9 percent black support for Bush (only 1 point short of what the ticket actually received), I wondered if a virtual black blowout for Bush was on the way.
David Bositis, the center's senior political analyst, inserted a cautionary note: He thinks Bush will get more like 12 percent to 14 percent at best. Even so, a black defection that large would almost certainly signal doom for Kerry.
What accounts for this black surge in support for Bush?
Bositis says most of it comes from conservative, churchgoing African-Americans who are over age 50, opposed to gay marriage and have not experienced a decline in their incomes during the Bush years.
On the flip side, Kerry's strongest support among African-Americans comes from adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who feel financially worse off than the older generations, according to poll takers.
That marks an unexpected generational switch. In 2000, Bositis said, more members of the black under-35 group called themselves Republicans or independents than any other age bracket. This year, more of them call themselves Democrats than any other age bracket and more of the older voters call themselves Republicans or independents.
Social conservatism is hardly new to us African-Americans, but in the past, our economic and political liberalism kept us voting for Democrats since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. This year, Karl Rove, Bush's senior political adviser, urged the president to reach out to evangelicals and other social conservatives and that gesture appears to have paid off among blacks too.
This outreach to black social conservatives may work particularly well with a candidate like Kerry, whose New England reserve varies widely in manner from President Bill Clinton, whose electric ability to connect with black crowds is legendary.
I suspect Bush's high-level black Cabinet appointments like Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice make him more palatable among African-Americans, even among those who disagree with him on many social and economic issues. A little symbolism can go a long, long way.
All of which poses a big challenge for Kerry. Younger voters of all races may give him the most support, but they also have the lowest voter turnout rates.
Better news may await Kerry in the crucial swing states, which can vary widely from national trends. An Ohio statewide poll by the University of Cincinnati, for example, shows that in a swing state where voters are quite evenly divided overall, only 3 percent of African-Americans support Bush and 95 percent support Kerry. Ohio's heavy decline in manufacturing jobs in recent years appears to have given Kerry a big boost among black voters there.
Nevertheless, the polling figures should be a loud wake-up call for those Democratic leaders inclined to take black voters for granted. No constituency is guaranteed to any party, not even in a year of extremely polarized politics.
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