Could Blacks Help Elect Bush?

Could black voters actually tip the scales for Bush? It sounds ridiculous to suggest such a thing. The enshrined article of political faith is that blacks fear and loathe Bush's policies, are granite solid Democrats, and Kerry will get the overwhelming majority of their vote. In every election since 1964 blacks have given Democrats near or more than 80 percent of their vote. Barry Goldwater is the only Republican presidential candidate in the last century that did worse than Bush with black voters. But Goldwater openly pandered to white Southerners. He backed states rights and opposed civil rights bills. Bush hasn't done that. That makes his numbers by comparison even more dismal.

But an October poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that Bush has doubled his support among blacks. Earlier polls have found pretty much the same. That's trouble for Kerry on three counts. Those likely to back Bush are over age 50 and self-describe themselves as conservative evangelicals. Older voters are more likely to vote than younger voters. And gay marriage ban initiatives, which are a top Republican wedge issue, are on the ballots in eleven states. The states, though, that worry Democrats the most are Ohio and Michigan. Blacks make up an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the overall voters in those states. A core of activist, and outspoken black evangelical leaders in both states back the ban and Bush. A statewide survey in Michigan by EPICMRA, an independent Michigan based polling firm, found that blacks support for the ban is ten percent greater than other groups.

Polls have shown that's the one issue that Republicans have struck pay dirt with black conservatives on. The Joint Center poll found that blacks, by a far bigger margin than the overall population, oppose gay marriage. They loathe Kerry's perceived support of abortion, and especially gay rights. In polls, he got 20 percent less support from black conservative evangelicals than Democratic presidential contender Al Gore got in 2000. Bush has more than tripled his support among that group.

Social conservativism and opposition to gay marriage, however, won't translate into a massive tidal wave shift of black votes to Bush. The issue of jobs, the economy, health care, and affirmative action trump gay marriage among blacks, and that includes many black evangelicals. Though Kerry polls worse than Gore did among blacks, he'll still get eighty percent or more of their vote. But this election won't hinge on vote percentages it hinges on vote numbers. If the polls are accurate, and enough black evangelicals vote for the ban, and Bush, as some say they will, or if they succeed in sowing enough confusion to cause some blacks to hesitate to vote for Kerry, it could tip one or two of these states to Bush.

The Bush-Cheney campaign hasn't bet the full house on winning Ohio and Michigan on gay marriage bans, and the votes of conservative black evangelicals alone. In July, it formed a handpicked African-American Leadership team – the National Steering Committee. Many of them live in Michigan and Ohio and the other key, battleground states of Missouri, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Their job is to convince blacks that Bush's domestic policies offer much more to blacks than anything the Democrats offer.

But a too heavy-handed emphasis on conservative issues, such as the gay marriage ban could backfire in Ohio and Michigan (and Oregon where the ban is on the ballot). Liberals, college students and gay activists will rush to the polls to try and defeat the bans. That will swell Kerry's vote total. But black voters, even black Democrats, and that includes those who support gay rights, won't storm the polls solely to defeat the gay marriage bans. There is little evidence that the issue ignites their political passions.

The Democrats signed up thousands of eligible black voters in Ohio in a furious drive to beat the October 4 registration cut off deadline. But that doesn't mean all or even most of the newly registered voters will actually vote. 100,000 eligible black voters in the state did not vote in the 2000 election. The Kerry percentage drop among blacks reflects his campaigns failure to yet energize them, and the gay marriage ban fight won't do that.

Democratic campaign officials dismiss any notion that more blacks will vote for Bush this election than in 2000. Their own internal polling found a much lower level of support for Bush among blacks than the Joint Center found, and that Kerry will equal or top Gore's vote total. If they're wrong, and Bush gets even a marginal bump up from blacks, in one of the two battleground states, instead of helping to beat him, as expected, they would help to elect him. That would be this election's ultimate irony.


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