African American voters overwhelmingly support Sen. John Kerry for president, but a lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy could be costly if it translates into a smaller black voter turnout on Election Day than a zealous electorate would generate.
A BET/CBS News poll of black voters shows that Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is leading President Bush by an 8-to-1 margin. But that strong level of support has a weak underbelly.
Fifty-eight percent of African Americans polled are only “satisfied” with Kerry as a candidate; just 27 percent say they are “enthusiastic” about him.
On the eve of next week’s Democratic convention, African American voters have this message for Kerry: Don’t take us for granted. The poll shows that 35 percent of African Americans believe the Democratic Party does.
The July 6-15 telephone poll of nearly 1,000 African Americans is the most comprehensive survey of registered African-American voters this year.
Among the other notable findings:
Jobs/economy is the “most important issue” to get black voters to the polls in November, with education a distant second and the war in Iraq and health care tied for third. Eighty-five percent of voters disapprove of President Bush’s job performance, and 92 percent say the country is “headed in the wrong direction.” Only 8 percent of African Americans believe the war in Iraq is worth the cost.
Corrine Alderman, a 62-year-old licensed practical nurse in St. Mary’s, Ga., is typical of those who like Kerry more than Bush, but whose support for the Massachusetts senator is less than passionate. During a telephone interview, she declares herself “just kind of satisfied, not enthusiastic,” about Kerry. “He just doesn’t seem like he has that go out and get it about him.”
Kerry, however, can take some solace because African Americans are far more engaged in this election than they were four years ago. Now, more than three-fourths say they are paying “a lot” or “some” attention to the campaign.
Furthermore, 83 percent of those polled say they will vote in November. But, as the poll summary cautions, what potential voters say “they will do in July may not reflect what actually happens in November.” For example, in 2000, 51 percent of registered voters cast ballots on Election Day, according to the Federal Election Commission. In a CBS News poll conducted three months earlier, 81 percent of registered voters said they planned to turn out.
Democrats say they are happy with the margin of black support the poll found for Kerry. Devona Dolliole, a Kerry spokeswoman, said that as more black people learn about him, “they will respond more and more positively to the Kerry/Edwards ticket and it will result in a record turnout in November.”
Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political scientist, believes the lack of enthusiasm for Kerry probably will not hurt black turnout for him. “The election is not about Kerry, but about Bush,” he said
The black animus against Bush is so strong, that being “satisfied” with Kerry “is sufficient to drive turnout,” added Walters, who advised the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns.
But Tara Wall, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said she is not convinced black Americans have written the president off.
“The Democrats talk a good game, but President Bush is a doer,” Wall said, adding that the president has increased minority homeownership, funding for historically black colleges and incentives for minority small businesses.
“Democrats have just been more vehement with their smoke-and-mirrors campaign,” she added.
The job factor
One thing that could fire up the black electorate for Kerry is a clear indication that he would improve the dour job picture for African Americans, the poll shows.
During a Republican “African American Economic Empowerment Tour,” in Cleveland on July 8, Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, boasted that unemployment among African Americans dropped to 10.1 percent in June, from 11.6 percent a year earlier. But the black rate was 8.2 percent when Bush took office.
“I ain’t heard Bush say anything about jobs,” complained Charles Williams, 48, a West Point, Mississippi maintenance man. Williams says he’s undecided about a presidential candidate, yet he adds: “Kerry, he’s speaking about creating jobs. I don’t think either candidate has said enough, to tell you the truth.”
The degree of worry about the economy is demonstrated by the finding that almost three-fourths of the respondents are concerned that someone in their household may be out of work in the next year.
Key Democrats, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, say they have discussed with Kerry the importance of jobs in the black community. William Lynch, the former New York deputy mayor under David Dinkins who recently joined the Kerry campaign, said his candidate is making jobs a priority.
Walters said Kerry could really energize the black community with a job training program specifically targeted to the high black unemployment rate. “He’d get people's attention,” Walters said.
While the economy is the main issue for Williams and other African Americans, the war in Iraq also generates lots of complaints. Williams’ son has been in the Air Force for one year, but being in a military family doesn’t make Williams, or the vast majority of other black military family members, any more supportive of Bush’s Iraq policy, the poll shows.
“I don’t think it’s a just war,” he said. “I think it’s something that Bush wanted to do, I guess.”
Majority of black oppose war
Fully 90 percent of African Americans oppose the war. That includes Alice Scott, 57, a retired DaimlerChrysler administrative assistant in Detroit. She’s livid about the war, fumes about Bush and is enthusiastic about Kerry. “I wonder how many innocent people have died over his [Bush’] hand, because of what he thought was a justified war, but it was not,” she said. “At this point I don’t rate him too much over Saddam.”
Opposition to the war is far stronger in the black community than among all voters. A CBS News/New York Times poll earlier this month indicated 59 percent of all voters say the war is not worth it.
Other findings show that African Americans are more religious than most Americans and more conservative on one current hot-button issue: Fifty-three percent of black voters say same-sex couples should have no legal recognition, compared to 39 percent of all voters.
The survey also found that:
- Three-quarters of African Americans believe affirmative action should be continued for the foreseeable future, yet only 4 percent said college spaces should be set aside for black students; two-thirds said better preparation in elementary and high school is the best way to get more African Americans into college.
- Two-thirds also said the United States should intervene when crisis occurs in Africa.
- Jesse Jackson is still the “most important African American leader” among blacks. Just 4 percent named Al Sharpton as most important, despite his national campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.