The Kerry campaign’s concerns about its candidate’s failure to rally black voters in numbers similar to those received by either the Gore or Clinton presidential campaigns have become a staple of the daily news. Whereas in most elections, a candidate’s base support solidifies as the election approaches, several polls show that Kerry’s black support has actually been eroding over the last two months.
Kerry’s late-summer poll numbers among blacks hovered around 84 percent. By early October, that percentage had fallen to 74 percent. In the last several days, the percentages have slipped further. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies poll puts Kerry’s black support at 69 percent. A Pew Research poll gives Kerry 70 percent of the black vote.
Kerry’s black poll numbers are ominously lower than those for Al Gore whose share of the black vote in 2000 is estimated to have been 92 percent. The good news for Senator Kerry is that in mid-October 2000, Gore’s black poll numbers were around 75 percent–17 points lower than his ultimate share. If Kerry can add another 17 points as Gore did, he will still garner a healthy 86-87 percent of the black vote.
The bad news for Kerry is that even 86-87 percent of the black vote won’t be enough to win on November 2. Since 1968, the Democrat presidential candidate’s share of the non-black vote has typically crested at no higher than 39 percent. There’s nothing in current polling data that suggests Kerry will do any better. That leaves Kerry with little margin for error when it comes to the black vote. It’s estimated that more than eleven million blacks voted in 2000. Al Gore received approximately ten million black votes. A six-point decrease from that total, even without a corresponding shift to George W. Bush, means about 600,000 fewer votes for John Kerry nationwide. In states with large black populations like the swing states of Ohio and Florida, that would mean a drop of about 25,000 and 50,000 votes, respectively.
That’s not the end of the bad news for Kerry. The above figures presume that President Bush’s share of the black vote remains static at the eight percent he received in 2000. (The Joint Center’s 2000 poll predicted that Bush would receive nine percent of the black vote.) The Joint Center’s poll shows Bush receiving 18 percent of the black vote in 2004. That’s probably a bit of a stretch. But if President Bush’s black-vote totals only rise by a modest five points (550,000 votes), Kerry will underperform Gore by more than 1,000,000 votes nationwide and approximately 100,000 votes in Florida alone. And that presumes black turnout matches the levels of 2000, a year in which several swing states saw unprecedented turnout.
The Kerry campaign understands that a decline in the black vote even remotely approaching that described above is fatal to his presidential prospects. That’s why Kerry and his running mate have been making the rounds of black churches, enlisting the support of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and making outrageous claims of black voter disenfranchisement to propel voters to the polls. Fliers suggesting that Republicans will use fire hoses to keep blacks from the polls are circulating in black neighborhoods. Kerry asserts that the votes of one million black voters were stolen in the 2000 presidential election. Kerry appeared at a Florida rally with a black minister who alleged that Republicans threw out black votes in 2000. (Never mind that in 24 of the 25 Florida counties with the highest voter-error rates resulting in the votes being discounted, the responsible election official was a Democrat.) A DNC election manual suggests that where there are no actual instances of voter intimidation operatives should preemptively make claims nonetheless.
These tactics are unlikely to get Kerry to 92 percent of the black vote. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that during his political career John Kerry has failed to build up a reservoir of goodwill and political capital among black voters. Indeed, there have been numerous articles detailing the frustration of black Democrat leaders with Kerry’s failure to enthuse the black electorate. On the other hand, President Bush has engaged in the most vigorous outreach to black voters of any Republican presidential candidate in modern history. Even before his inauguration, he began employing a favorite technique of Ronald Reagan: Bypassing the (almost uniformly hostile) gatekeepers to the black electorate and going directly to the people. Moreover, President Bush has promoted policies such as school vouchers, home-ownership programs, educational accountability, and faith-based initiatives that play favorably among the black electorate.
Furthermore, the problem for Democrats may transcend this election. The black electorate itself is changing in ways that could cause it to trend Republican. Although the Joint Center’s poll suggests that young blacks in this election cycle are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats than in the previous cycle, that may be a bit of an outlier. Previous studies have shown that young blacks are less likely than older blacks to identify themselves as Democrats. The Joint Center’s poll even shows that older blacks, especially those who self-identify as Christian, are shifting, albeit gradually, to the Republican party. Studies also show that the increasing number of blacks who homeschool, and those in the military and safety forces, are more likely to be conservative.
All of this does not presage a wholesale black realignment toward the Republican party. A significant portion of the black middle class, for example, consists of government workers unlikely to be weaned from the party of government. In addition, the 50-year black allegiance to the Democrat party has fostered a vague perception that to vote Republican renders a black voter “inauthentic.” Voting Democrat is often something less than an expression of support for a particular candidate than it is a matter of racial validation and solidarity. But if George W. Bush is successful in getting relatively close to the 18 percent predicted in the Joint Center poll, voting Republican may no longer be considered an act of racial disloyalty. That opens the way for more black voters–perhaps as many as 25 percent-30 percent by 2012–who are not otherwise enamored with the Democrat party to cross to the Republican party. And that would be catastrophic for the Democrat party as currently constituted.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.