Black Evangelicals: Bush's New Trump Card
The recent meeting between President Bush and the Congressional Black Caucus grabbed headlines because Bush and the group spent the last four years snubbing each other. What did not make news was a meeting Bush had with black evangelical leaders the day before his get-together with the caucus.
The great untold story of the 2004 presidential elections was the black evangelical vote. Although black evangelicals still voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, they gave Bush the cushion he needed to bag Ohio and win the White House. There were early warning signs that might happen. The same polls that showed black's prime concern was with bread and butter issues – and that Kerry was seen as the candidate who could deliver on those issues – also revealed that a sizeable number of blacks ranked abortion, gay marriage and school prayer as priority issues. Their concern for these issues didn't come anywhere close to that of white evangelicals, but it was still higher than that of the general voting public.
A Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies poll in 2004 found that blacks by a far larger margin than the overall population opposed gay marriage. That raised a few eyebrows among some political pundits, but there were much earlier signs of blacks' relentless hostility to gays and gay rights. A survey that measured black attitudes toward gays published in Jet magazine in 1994 found that a sizable number of blacks were suspicious and scornful of them. Many blacks also loathed Kerry's perceived support of abortion. In polls, Kerry got 20 percent less support from black conservative evangelicals than Democratic presidential contender Al Gore received in 2000.
In the right place and under the right circumstance, black evangelicals posed a stealth danger to Democrats. As it turned out, the right place for Bush was Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida. These were must-win swing states, and Bush won them with a considerably higher percent of the black vote than he got in 2000. In Ohio, the gay marriage ban helped bump up the black vote for Bush by seven percentage points, to 16 percent. In Florida and Wisconsin, Republicans aggressively courted and wooed key black religious leaders. They dumped big bucks from Bush's Faith-Based Initiative program into church-run education and youth programs. Black church leaders not only endorsed Bush, but in some cases they actively worked for his re-election, and encouraged members of their congregations to do the same.
The helpful nudge over the top that the black evangelicals gave Bush in Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin has not been lost on Bush's political architect Karl Rove. He has publicly declared that he will pour even more resources and attention into revving up black evangelicals in the 2006 and 2008 congressional and presidential elections. Rove has flatly said that Bush will try to pay off one of his debts to evangelicals by pushing the languishing federal gay-marriage ban. Family groups say they'll dump gay-marriage ban initiatives on ballots in as many states as they can.
Republicans will inflame black's anti-gay bias in states such as Michigan, where blacks, who make up a significant percent of voters, backed a gay-marriage ban in big numbers. Even if passage of the federal marriage ban ultimately falls flat on its face should it get out of Congress to the states, the fight over it can still turn the 2006 mid-term and 2008 presidential elections into a noisy and distracting referendum on the family. That will give Republican strategists another chance to pose as God's defenders of the family and shove even more black evangelicals into the Republican vote column.
Meanwhile, Bush officials will continue to ladle out millions through their faith-based programs to a handpicked core of top black church leaders. They've already announced a series of conferences that will be held in various cities starting in February to show black church leaders and community groups how to grab more of the faith initiative money. That will be more than enough to assure the active allegiance – or at minimum, the silence – of some black church leaders on those Bush domestic policies that wreak havoc on poor black communities.
Bush and the Republicans bank that their strategy of bypassing black Democrats and civil rights leaders to make deals with black evangelicals will finally break the decades-long stranglehold Democrats have had on the black vote. If they're right, it will spell deep peril for the Democrats in future elections.