Gore faces challenge of rallying black vote

African-Americans back the vice president without embracing him

July 09, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Get Sharon Todd and Pamela Hall talking about Bill Clinton, and the goodwill positively gushes.

At Hall's cozy West Baltimore home Friday morning, the two African-American women extolled their president as a man who cares, who understands their needs, who has done a lot for their community.

But as the conversation turned to Clinton's would-be successor, Vice President Al Gore, the passions wilted like impatiens in the afternoon sun.

"I just don't think he has the strength that Clinton has, the drive," Hall said blankly, to nods of agreement from Todd.

"The fight," added Todd, "it's just not there."

Presidential politics will be everywhere tomorrow through Wednesday as the annual meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People continues in Baltimore.

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush speaks to the gathering tomorrow. Gore appears Wednesday, pleading with delegates to keep the White House in Democratic hands.

But the burning political question will not be so much whether black voters will cast their ballots for Bush or Gore, but whether Gore can muster the kind of passionate support among African-Americans that his boss has enjoyed to such powerful effect.

So far, that commitment seems to have eluded him.

Though black voters overwhelmingly favor Gore, a poll last month by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake and Republican pollster Ed Goeas found that the number of African-Americans who say they are "extremely likely" to vote in November lags behind the number of white voters by 5 percentage points.

That is a sharp turnaround from 1998, when in many pivotal states, black turnout percentages actually surpassed white turnout.

In the poll, black voter enthusiasm lagged behind that of Republicans by 9 percentage points and could not even keep up with overall Democratic enthusiasm.

"It's almost like [Gore's] got no pulse," fretted Michelle Taylor-Bradley, a black voter from the Philadelphia suburb of Montgomeryville.

"He's not strong on a lot of stands. I don't know what he believes," she said.

To be sure, Bush has made some effort to court African-American voters directly, through inner-city appearances and photo opportunities, and indirectly, through his efforts to frame himself as "a new kind of Republican."

But while the Texas governor expects to make serious inroads into the Hispanic vote, Republicans have far lower expectations from the black community.

"The party would like to get up to 15 percent from the single digits," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall. "That should be doable."

Though Hispanic voters have received most of the attention this year, black voters could be more important.

Some 75 percent of Latinos live in California and Texas, two states that are hardly in play this November, said David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which specializes in minority voting patterns.

Texas will certainly go to Bush, while Gore is heavily favored in California.

In contrast, African-American voters - about 11 percent of the total - are spread more broadly. Concentrations of black voters appear in several battleground states, especially in the industrial Midwest. Heavy black turnout in Southern states, such as Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Arkansas, could keep that region in play as well - but only if they vote.

"If you did the polling, you'd see that African-Americans are overwhelmingly for Gore," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, "but that doesn't mean anything if they don't turn out."

In 1998, blacks in key states went to the polls in force. They turned out heavily in New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, driven in part by anger over the president's impeachment. That surge helped elect three Democratic governors and two Democratic senators.

In Maryland, a gubernatorial election that had appeared close just days before the voting turned into a comfortable re-election for Democrat Parris N. Glendening, thanks in part to a heavy turnout by black voters.

Gore campaign officials say that influx of black support resulted in large part from concerted get-out-the-vote drives, which Democrats plan to repeat this fall. That, they say, is when the passion will be stoked.

"Those things don't happen by accident," a Gore campaign aide said.

Indeed, the NAACP has vowed to get 4 million African-Americans to the polls in November.

Still, the question remains whether November 2000 will be like 1998, or like 1988, when black voting was particularly low and Bush's father was elected president, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

"African-Americans didn't come out in '88 because they didn't see Mike Dukakis as much of a friend, and they didn't see George Bush as much of an enemy," Gans said. "And I don't think they'll see this George Bush as much of an enemy either."

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