Bush: Courting the Black Vote

Juan Williams [RSS] makes a surprising argument in a NYT op-ed today. Williams believes that George W. Bush could win a sizable percentage of the African American vote but fears that, because of frustration over the lack of black support in 2000, the Bush team isn’t going to do much to court them this time.

With the presidential election only a few months away, it is time for President Bush to unleash his secret weapon — his relationship with black and Hispanic voters.

The president is already winning a third of the popular vote among Hispanics, according to a Zogby International poll taken this spring. With advertisements and outreach focused on reforms to allow easier immigration for workers, the president has a good chance to add to his numbers among Hispanics.

But in a close race, the key to re-election rests on the president’s ability to increase his percentage of the black vote. Here, he has the chance to make tremendous gains — if only because he now has practically no support among black voters. A May Washington Post/ABC News poll showed the likely Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, with a 79 percent to 6 percent lead over Mr. Bush among black voters. If the president gets only 6 percent of the black vote this year he will have achieved the near impossible task of getting a lower percentage of black votes than he did in 2000, when he won 8 percent.

But the president has the opportunity to flip the script. With a direct appeal, President Bush could win at least 20 percent of the black vote — and the White House.

I’d certainly like to think that’s possible. Certainly, at least 20 percent of American blacks would be better off with a second Bush term than a first Kerry term. And Juan Williams’ bona fides in having a sense of the black pulse are light years better than mine. Still, while past performance is not an indicator of future results, it’s the best one we’ve got.

First, the field is open. Compared with previous Democratic campaigns, Mr. Kerry’s has done a poor job of reaching out to black voters. As Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000, said recently, “Don’t expect me to go out and say John Kerry is a great man and a visionary if you’re not running ads on African-American or Hispanic cable networks. Fair is fair. So send my dad a postcard, send my sisters a bumper sticker.” The Kerry campaign has also been notable for its lack of blacks and Hispanics among the candidate’s top advisers. And Mr. Kerry has rarely been identified with issues that compel black voters — notably affirmative action.

Second, it’s increasingly clear that blacks are no longer willing to vote as a bloc, automatically lining up with the Democrats. This is particularly true of younger black voters. A 2002 poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research group based in Washington, found a shift in the political identification of black voters. For example, 34 percent of 18- to 25-year-old black voters identified themselves as independents. Overall, 24 percent of black Americans of all ages see themselves as independents — a four percentage point increase since the 2000 election. And now 10 percent of blacks call themselves Republican, a six percentage point rise since 2000.

Young black Americans seem ready for a forthright conversation about race and politics. While many older blacks responded with anger to Bill Cosby’s recent call for poor black people to take more responsibility for their problems, the young people I encountered were uniformly supportive of Mr. Cosby’s words.

It’s worth noting that for this group, the president has an issue with considerable appeal: school vouchers. Despite strong opposition from civil rights leaders (and Democrats), 66 percent of blacks and 67 percent of Hispanics favor vouchers, according to a recent Newsweek poll. That is higher than the 54 percent of whites who say they want to see vouchers used to give students access to better schools.

Third, Mr. Bush has a network to make a pitch to black voters — the black church. Despite some bumps along the way, black churches remain generally enthusiastic about the president’s faith-based initiative. The president has used his appearances before faith-based groups as a way to communicate with black Americans. It was no surprise that Mr. Bush used a speech to ministers to condemn Senator Trent Lott for expressing kind words about Strom Thurmond’s segregationist past.

And then there is the president’s top selling point with black voters — his track record of appointing minorities to top positions. There are three black cabinet secretaries in the Bush administration: Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development; Rod Paige, secretary of education; and Colin Powell, the secretary of state.

What’s more, the administration official most closely identified with the president is a black woman, Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser. By giving Ms. Rice and Mr. Powell so much clout, President Bush is miles ahead of any other president, Democrat or Republican, in his treatment of black people. More important, the president, by appointing people of genuine talent and ability, has created a climate where tokenism is rarely part of the debate. After all, Mr. Powell consistently has a higher approval rating for his job performance than any other administration official.

This is logically satisfying, to be sure. I believe it’s worth substantial effort to mobilize sympathetic minority voters–but not by pandering to them. The key is to persuade voters in general that voting to re-elect Bush is good for America and simultaneously convince black voters that what’s good for America is good for them. At some point, that will happen. It might as well be November. Still, as a precautionary measure, I’ll not hold my breath.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. You ever read ‘The Myth of the Independent Voter’?

    Two words: wishful_thinking

  2. James Joyner says:

    Williams is pretty liberal. Indeed, I presume he’s voting for Kerry. I think he’s proposing a partial re-alignment, not siphoning off independent voters. Remember, 25 years ago, the idea that white Southerners would vote overwhelmingly Republican was a laugher.

  3. John says:

    It would be great if this would happen. The Democrats only pay attention to blacks during elections. I think Bush should push the school choice vouchers and the faith based issues. That could definitly get him some votes.

    Republicans must stop writing off the black vote as unattainable.

  4. McGehee says:

    James, “25 years ago” was 1979. I believe Mr. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was before that.

  5. James Joyner says:

    Kevin:

    I’ve written at length on the “Southern Strategy” canard previously.

    But until the mid-1980s, the Deep South was inhospitable to Republican candidates for anything but president.

  6. McGehee says:

    I’ve written at length on the “Southern Strategy” canard previously.

    That being that it was a deliberately racist appeal? I agree that was a canard, but the Nixon campaign did in fact have what they called a “Southern strategy.”

    But until the mid-1980s, the Deep South was inhospitable to Republican candidates for anything but president.

    An important qualification left out of your original statement. You are, however, correct.