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Where black voters count the most

Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., during a campaign appearance in Philadelphia in May.Tim Shaffer / Reuters file
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The distrust that black Democrats have of President Bush was on dramatic display in two venues Thursday, on the floor of the House of Representatives and at the meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Philadelphia.

The House was thrown into an uproar when Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Fla., told Republicans, "You stole the election" in 2000 in a "coup d’etat."

In a rare invocation of the rules, the House voted to hold Brown's remarks out of order and she was barred from speaking for the rest of the day.

UN monitoring?
At the time, the House was debating a measure that would have prevented any U.S. official from requesting U.N. monitoring of the Nov. 2 elections, an idea Brown and other Democrats support.

Meanwhile, the brouhaha over President Bush’s decision to not address the annual NAACP meeting underscored the potentially decisive role black voters will play in the presidential election.

Just as not all voters are equally significant to the outcome of the election — because some live in states that are not contested by the two parties — so, too, not all black voters are equally significant.

In states with large black populations such as Maryland and New York, Democrat John Kerry will almost certainly win on Nov. 2 and need not invest much time there during the campaign.

Conversely, there are large black populations in South Carolina and Mississippi, but those states are solidly Republican and, if past voting patterns are any indication, Bush will almost certainly win their votes on Nov. 2.

Focus on St. Louis, Philadelphia
But black voters in some cities could end up being inordinately powerful. In Milwaukee, St. Louis, Kansas City and Philadelphia, they could play the decisive role by determining whether Kerry wins the key states of Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania, which together have 15 percent of the 270 votes needed to win the presidency.

It is almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which either Bush or Kerry wins all three of those states, and yet loses the White House.

Even if a candidate were to win two of those three, he’d likely win the election.

“In the contested states, African-American voters will be a dominant force in whether or not the Democratic candidates can be successful,” Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., told Thursday. Fattah’s district includes much of Philadelphia. About half of the city’s electorate is African-American, according to Fattah.

“In Philadelphia, you need a margin of something close to 300,000 votes in order to carry the state of Pennsylvania,” Fattah explained. “In 2000, Al Gore had a net of 328,000 votes coming out of Philadelphia.”

Gore carried the state by 5 percentage points.

On Thursday, Kerry emphasized his pitch to African-American voters and capitalized on the bad blood between Bush and the NAACP by addressing the group, saying, “The president may be too busy to talk to you, but I have news for you: He's going to have plenty of time after Nov. 2."

Bush decided it made no sense for him to speak to an organization that is so hostile to him.

Anti-Bush ad in 2000
Bush is likely aware of NAACP leader Julian Bond's rhetoric. "Their idea of equal rights is the American flag and the Confederate swastika flying side by side," Bond said of Republicans in June. "They draw their most rabid supporters from the Taliban wing of American politics."

Bush also recalls the attack ad the NAACP National Voter Fund ran against him in the 2000 campaign, accusing him of callous indifference to the 1998 murder of Texan James Byrd.

The ad featured a re-enactment of the truck-dragging death of Byrd and the voice of Byrd's daughter, Renee Mullins, saying that when Bush refused to support hate crimes legislation in Texas, “it was like my father was killed all over again."

The hate crimes law to which Mullins referred would not have increased the penalties for the men who murdered Byrd, two of whom had already been sentenced to death at the time the ad ran.

In one of his debates with Al Gore, Bush made this point but to little avail.

Gore won an estimated 90 percent of black votes, according to exit poll interviews. Since Democratic presidential candidates from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton to Gore have won in excess of 75 percent of the black vote, according to exit poll estimates, the problem for Kerry is increasing turnout.

“We vote in higher percentages for Democrats as opposed to Republicans, but the size of that turnout is the problem,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C.

“What we’ve seen in recent elections in a fall-off in the turnout of African-American voters. We’re trying to find what we need to do in order to reconnect with African–American voters. I think, as I talk to them, they have been experiencing some extreme disappointments and a lot of time that disappointment gets translated into inaction on their part,” Clyburn said.

Depressed voter turnout in majority-black congressional districts is associated with a parallel phenomenon: The congressional races in those district are uncompetitive. The Democratic candidate often has only token Republican opposition, sometimes none at all, and wins at least 70 percent on the vote.

In Tennessee’s 9th Congressional District, for instance, which had a more than two-thirds black population in 2000, incumbent Democrat Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. ran unopposed.

The total vote in the presidential race in that district was less than 113,000, far below what it was in every other congressional district in Tennessee.

Because decennial redistricting lags population shifts, the GOP-held 7th Congressional District had 30 percent more people than Ford’s district. But total voter turnout for the presidential election in the Seventh, at more than 362,000, was three times as large as in Ford’s district.

Success in Philadelphia
But in Pennsylvania, Fattah has a more encouraging story for Democrats. “Kerry will net 350,000 or better” in Philadelphia, predicted Fattah. If so, he’ll exceed Gore’s 2000 Philadelphia support by more than 20,000 votes.

“We’ve put another 100,000 registered voters on the rolls,” he said. He credits the union-backed anti-Bush group American Coming Together, local labor unions, and the city’s Democratic organization.

Despite this optimistic view from Pennsylvania, there’s not universal happiness among black leaders with Kerry’s initial efforts to increase turnout among African-Americans.

Black members of the House who saw the first batch of Kerry’s television advertisements targeting black voters panned them.

“Lackluster, to say the least," Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday after seeing the ads in a preview. “Horrible,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y.

And Republicans say on issues such as same-sex marriage and partial-birth abortion, Kerry is far out of step with the church-going black population.

At one of the Capitol Hill rallies this week in support of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between one man and one woman, the most passionate speech in support of the measure came from Democrat and Baptist pastor Walter Fauntroy, who once represented the District of Columbia in Congress.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Christine Iverson also pointed to other reasons black voters might think twice before voting for Kerry.

Bush’s budgets have provided increased funding for historically black colleges. And, she said, “under George Bush, the number of minorities who are first-time home owners has increased. Nearly 50 percent are now homeowners, up 17 percent between 2003 and 2004.”