Sharpton learns that blacks want to beat Bush, too

February 12, 2004|By Clarence Page

CHICAGO - 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.

Mr. 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, Mr. 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. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean won the overall vote.

But in South Carolina, despite Mr. 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 Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina (45 percent) and John Kerry (30 percent) of Massachusetts, but ahead of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark (7 percent) and Mr. Dean (5 percent).

As a master of spin, Mr. Sharpton put a happy face on these little victories as if they actually meant something. He's not about to let a little matter such as a lack of votes prevent him from declaring victory.

"I think that this is a tremendous boost to our campaign," he said, noting that he ended up ahead of other candidates despite having almost no money.

But be not deceived. The Harlem minister with the James Brown coiffure does not have momentum. He has no-mentum.

South Carolina was a telling blow. Mr. Sharpton had positioned the state, with its large black population - large enough to account for about half the Democratic turnout - to be his strongest.

Yet most black voters decided their best bet was Mr. Kerry or Mr. Edwards. In fact, if you define "black candidates" not by the color of their skin but by the color of their supporters, two white men, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, appear to have made better black candidates than Mr. Sharpton.

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 others.

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 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, Mr. Sharpton lost out to an even bigger energizer of black voters: President Bush.

A lot of black Democrats still feel cheated by the electoral fiasco 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 were before.

Black Americans are not monolithic. They don't rush to vote for a candidate simply because he or she is black. Mr. 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 2-to-1 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 Mr. Sharpton intended to teach us, but it is one he appears to have learned the hard way.

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

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