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African-American voters and the 2004 elections

Does the African-American vote count in 2004? NBC's Rosiland Jordan explores.
Florida protesters call for a revote November 9, 2000 outside the Palm Beach County courthouse. Colin Braley / Retuers file
/ Source: NBC News

Does the African-American vote count in 2004?  Talk to party activists from both the Democratic and Republican camps, and the answer is an unequivocal “yes.” 

Will the presidential candidates focus on issues important to African-American voters? 

Maybe, maybe not, say political analysts, and that could affect not just voter turnout, but also the parties’ chances of growing their ranks of black supporters in the long term.

Numbers count
If sheer numbers alone count, consider these statistics: In the 2000 presidential election, the Census Bureau said nearly 13 million African-Americans voted – 84.2 percent of the 15.3 million who were registered, and 56.8 percent of all African-Americans who were both citizens and old enough to vote.

  • In 2000, African-American voters were 11.6 percent of all the Americans who voted – the percentage just a bit lower than the overall percentage of African-Americans in the general population (13.28 percent). 
  • (In a close race, analysts say black voter turnout could affect a candidate’s chances of winning.)The vast majority – 90 percent -- voted for Democrat Al Gore, while Republican George W. Bush picked up 9 percent of the black vote (Green Party candidate Ralph Nader received the remaining 1 percent). 

Both major parties consider the black vote key to winning by a sizeable percentage in national elections.

Voter concerns
What’s on voters’ minds? Ronald Walters, University of Maryland political scientist and author of “White Nationalism, Black Interests: Conservative Public Policy and the Black Community," says five issues pop up immediately: jobs and economic well-being, including welfare reform; criminal justice; education; health care; and the war in Iraq. 

“Tax cuts [a key part of President Bush’s economic plan] are not a real resonator,” Walters says. “Voters are concerned about their quality of life and education, and about ultimately, about having a job.”

Washington-based pollster Cornell Belcher says for younger voters, those between 18 and 35 years old, the concerns are narrower: the lack of job creation and vanishing opportunities to make it into the middle class, and the continuing expense of the U.S. mission in Iraq. 

“[These voters] see the war as a function of oil and money and revenge,” Belcher says.  Moreover, Belcher says younger voters think money for scholarships and community development is vanishing to pay for the war.

Party outreach
Both major political parties say they have the answers to African-American voters’ concerns.  But activists admit that if they don’t connect to these voters, their policies won’t go anywhere.

Of particular interest to both Republicans and Democrats is the growing bloc of voters not tied to either party. According to a 2002 survey by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, 63 percent of African-American voters consider themselves Democrats, while 24 percent call themselves independents; only 10 percent call themselves Republicans.

Among voters 18-35, the percentage of those calling themselves Democrats drops to 54 percent, those answering as independents jump to between 30 and 35 percent, and those identified as Republican drop slightly to 9 percent. Older black voters are more firmly in the Democratic camp, and the center says that regardless of political affiliation, black voters continue to support Democratic candidates in significant numbers.

The Democratic Party, which has counted on solid black support since the civil rights era, says it’s not taking any of these voters for granted, especially the self-described “independents” – and it’s making a more visible effort to reach out. 

Job 1: Recharging the base
According to Kevin Parker of the Democratic National Committee, “re-energizing our base vote” is essential, not just in the 2004 elections, but beyond. 

Pieces of the Democratic outreach puzzle include fund-raisers with a hip-hop theme, to draw in younger voters who haven’t donated to the party before; broadening the network of local party activists; e-mail to at least 8,000 voters interested in African-American issues; and sponsoring training workshops for those interested in politics. 

“This is part of a larger transformation of the party,” Parker says. “We have a macro-strategy of sustaining Democratic-elected offices across the board; we can’t just have the White House.”

According to a story in the Boston Globe on Jan. 30, the Democrats are also quietly encouraging voters with disposable income to start giving to the party, even if it’s just $20. Analysts say until recently, African-Americans have depended more on get-out-the-vote campaigns to show their party loyalty, but giving cash can deepen their ties to one party and promote more involvement in party activities.

For GOP, less on race, more on issues
The Republican Party, which, according to The Washington Post, has a goal of winning 25 percent of the black vote in 2004, is confident those same findings from the Joint Center could turn into a boon for its candidates. 

Pamela Mantis, Republican National Committee spokeswoman, says the party’s strategy is less focused on race and more on issues that appeal to a wide range of constituents: registering new voters, recruiting “team leaders” who agree to bring in 10 new party supporters each, and finding and developing candidates for local, state and federal offices.

“The challenge is getting people to not vote the way their parents did,” says Mantis. By focusing on initiatives already put forward by President Bush, such as funding for faith-based organizations, school vouchers and tax cuts, Mantis says, the GOP believes it can attract younger, more open-minded black voters.  “This is part of a long-term effort to get new voters.… [Success] won’t happen in a year,” she says.

Talking to voters
Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters says regardless of approach, the parties and their candidates will be more successful if they talk about issues – and the ways to pay for them.  “President Bush has floated a couple of good ideas – home ownership -- but there’s no funding” to help would-be buyers, says Walters. 

“He also mentioned drug rehabilitation in the State of the Union, but the link to faith-based programs raises skepticism among many voters.” 

The Democrats, meantime, may be losing their only opportunity to address voters’ worries about jobs and other domestic issues, because of the growing preoccupation with a candidate’s “electability” vs. Bush in November. 

'A sleeping issue'
Walters argues voters could end up supporting a candidate whose domestic agenda fails to address their concerns.

Pollster Belcher says that if he were running for office, he would talk about wage growth, or rather, the low rate of wage growth – seven-tenths of 1 percent in the last quarter of 2003. 

Belcher argues that even with low inflation rates (no change in the general level of prices in the last quarter of 2003, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), young people are telling him it’s getting harder for them to achieve or maintain a middle-class standard of living. 

“This is a sleeping issue the [presidential] candidates are not addressing,” he says.

Ultimately, Walters says it’s up to the voters to demand they be taken seriously.  “Voters have to march with their feet,” Walters says, by turning out at the polls, giving money and holding candidates accountable for their policies.