What's behind blacks' big bump for Bush?

October 21, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Could President Bush receive a surprisingly large black turnout on Election Day? Considering recent history, the idea sounds absurd. 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 Mr. Bush among likely black voters.

A New York Times poll released Tuesday showed that among likely voters, 47 percent support Mr. Bush, 45 percent are for Sen. John Kerry and 2 percent are for Ralph Nader.

But in the race breakdown, the Bush-Cheney ticket is buoyed by an amazing 17 percent from African-Americans. (Mr. Kerry receives 76 percent of the black votes and Mr. 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 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, with 69 percent for Mr. Kerry and 2 percent for Mr. Nader.

Since the center's poll proved remarkably prescient in the 2000 presidential election, showing 9 percent black support for Mr. Bush (only 1 point short of what the ticket actually received), I wondered if a virtual black blowout for the president was on the way.

David Bositis, the center's senior political analyst, inserted a cautionary note: He thinks Mr. Bush will get 12 percent to 14 percent at best. Even so, a black defection that large would almost certainly signal doom for the Democratic senator from Massachusetts.

What accounts for this black surge in support for Mr. Bush?

Mr. Bositis says most of it comes from conservative, churchgoing African-Americans who are over age 50, are opposed to gay marriage and have not experienced a decline in their incomes during the Bush years. On the flip side, Mr. Kerry's strongest support among blacks is from adults 18 to 35 who feel financially worse off than the older generations, according to poll takers.

That marks an unexpected generational switch.

In 2000, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 may work particularly well with a candidate such as Mr. 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 Mr. Bush's high-level black Cabinet appointments -- Secretary of State Colin L. 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 Senator 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Bush and 95 percent support Mr. Kerry. Ohio's heavy decline in manufacturing jobs in recent years appears to have given Mr. 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.

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

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