Black voters ready to listen to Republicans' pitch

January 08, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Sometimes I receive letters or e-mails that begin something like this: "I can't understand why blacks - or African-Americans or whatever it is you want to call yourselves these days - stay so loyal to the Democratic Party. After all, President Bush appointed Colin Powell as his secretary of state and Condoleezza Rice as his foreign policy adviser."

And he showed good taste by doing so, didn't he?

However, as groundbreaking as their appointments were, most black people I know still are waiting for the Bush administration to create more jobs for blacks than just the two mentioned above.

Writers like that one simply do not understand how the world looks from an African-American point of view.

Now Republican Party leaders say they are trying to close that gap. Yes, we've heard that before. But this time, Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, calls increasing his party's share of the black vote "a top, top priority."

If so, the opportunities are there. Quite a few black voters, particularly the young, also sound dissatisfied with giving nine out of 10 of their votes to one party.

Item: The number of black respondents who called themselves Democrats slipped from 74 percent to 63 percent between 2000 and 2002 in polls by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank based in Washington. That could be a problem for Democrats and an opportunity for Republicans.

Also, 21 percent of the black respondents approved of President Bush's overall performance in a poll taken last summer by the independent Black America's Political Action Committee (BAMPAC). That's more than twice the 9 percent of the black vote that went to the Bush-Cheney presidential ticket in 2000 - which was almost a 25 percent drop from the 13 percent of the black vote that the Republican Bob Dole-Jack Kemp ticket received in 1996.

Item: Republican Michael R. Bloomberg won 22 percent of the black vote in the 2001 New York City mayoral election. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, won 17 percent of the black vote in the California gubernatorial recall election in November.

The GOP has announced new outreach efforts such as ads in black-oriented newspapers and television, radio programs to promote poll-tested Republican issues such as tax cuts, "traditional family values" and school vouchers that are more popular with rank-and-file black voters than with liberal black leaders.

However - and this is a very significant "however" - party leaders have remained quiet about how much money they plan to spend on this effort.

Alvin Williams, president of BAMPAC, doesn't expect a dramatic turnout in black votes this year, either, although his long-range view was more upbeat. "The good news is that younger black voters are disillusioned with the Democratic Party and more want to be seen as `independent, quote, unquote.'"

Nevertheless, the GOP does not have to persuade black Democrats to switch parties if it can persuade blacks not to vote.

That's not hard to do when Democratic candidates fail to reach out to blacks very well, either. In Maryland's 2002 gubernatorial race, for example, Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend lost mostly because of a lackluster campaign and her failure to pick a black running mate. Her Republican opponent, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who did choose a black running mate, Michael S. Steele, won 13 percent of Maryland's black vote overall, and 22 percent of Prince George's County, a black voter stronghold in suburban Washington. That high percentage of black votes, coupled with unusually low black turnout, enabled Mr. Ehrlich to edge out Ms. Townsend.

In other words, black Democrats can be "swing" voters, after all, simply by not voting for certain candidates.

As Chuck Todd, editor in chief of The Hotline, an Internet political newsletter, recently wrote, white voters don't swing that much, either. Even though recent polls show about a third of voters call themselves "independent," most of those self-declared independents also tend to vote for one party or the other, just like partisans do. Fewer than 10 percent actually pick and choose candidates from both parties.

The most accurate definition of a swing voter, Mr. Todd wrote, "is a person who swings between voting and not voting." That also describes a lot of black voters.

With that in mind, each party would like to have your vote. If they can't have your vote, they would like for you to stay home. Either way works for them.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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