By JONATHAN TILOVE
October 8, 2004
c. Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ Amid mounting hostility in the black community, President Bush stands to markedly increase _ even double _ his share of the black vote Nov. 2, a new poll suggests.
The Bush years, a sour economy and the war in Iraq appear to have driven younger blacks into a more fervent embrace of the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, Republicans have made dramatic inroads with black Christian conservatives, whom they have courted on issues like gay marriage and federal support for church-based charities.
These are among the conclusions of a national opinion poll released Tuesday by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank devoted to studying issues of concern to the black community. The survey _ which sampled both African-Americans and the general public _ comes in the closing days of a campaign in which the size of the Democratic margin among black voters could determine the outcome of the presidential race.
Ostensibly, the poll confirms that blacks remain overwhelmingly loyal to the Democratic Party. Black respondents support John Kerry by a huge margin and are starkly more critical than other Americans of the president’s job performance and his handling of the Iraq war. Only 18 percent of blacks think the country is headed in the right direction, compared to 36 percent of the general sample.
The poll, conducted Sept. 15-Oct. 10 among a sample of 850 African-Americans and another sample of 850 respondents in the general population, found that Kerry was the choice of 69 percent of blacks. That is shy of Al Gore’s 74 percent in the Joint Center poll four years ago, when Gore was the anointed successor of Bill Clinton, who had a special bond with black America.
Gore ended up with 90 percent of the black vote, according to 2000 exit polls, and Bush just 8 percent _ the worst Republican performance since Barry Goldwater in 1964.
In the new poll, Bush was the choice of 18 percent of blacks, double his percentage in the 2000 survey. In 2000, blacks accounted for a fifth of all Gore’s votes, and more than a quarter of his votes in Florida, said Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center. If Bush can cut into the black vote, it could be decisive.
But careful observers of the black vote _ including David Bositis, the Joint Center’s senior research associate, who designed and interpreted the survey _ cautioned that Bush’s dramatic gains could be illusory.
Turnout, Bositis said, will be the determining factor. If there is a surge of new young black voters this year, Bositis said Bush may well end up with something like 12 percent of the black vote _ the average for Republican presidential candidates since Richard Nixon in 1972.
Others, like University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, believe that animus in the black community toward Bush is so strong that he will be lucky to do even as well as he did last time.
“They are not charging the door (to register) to keep the guy in _ they’re doing it to throw the rascal out,” Walters said.
Despite Bush’s potential gains, the Joint Center poll found that black Americans viewed the president less favorably than four years ago. As in 2000, less than a third of blacks viewed the president favorably. But the share with an unfavorable view soared from a little more than half in 2000 to more than two-thirds this year. (In 2002, when Bush was riding high nationally, he was viewed favorably by a majority of African-Americans.)
“The bottom line is mobilization,” said Michael Dawson, a professor of government at Harvard University who has been doing his own national surveys with colleague Larry Bobo for a book about race and public opinion in the Bush years.
Dawson believes that blacks with the greatest antipathy toward Bush are the most likely to turn out and most likely to be targeted by anti-Bush groups getting out the vote. “The bottom line is that if there is a significant African-American mobilization, it’s very bad for Bush,” he said.
The most stunning results in the Joint Center survey involved two subgroups within the African-American population _ younger blacks and self-described Christian conservatives _ and what appear to be important shifts in black public opinion.
It used to be that older blacks were more dependably Democratic than younger ones. That has now flipped.
In the 2000 survey, only about half of blacks ages 18 to 25 identified as Democrats, and 36 percent as independents. In 2004, 71 percent of this group identified as Democrats and only 22 percent as independents. Young blacks were also the most supportive of Kerry. They were the one group of blacks among whom he scored better than Gore did four years ago.
Meanwhile, 12 percent of blacks 65 and over identified as Republicans this year, up from 1 percent in 2000.
Bositis noted that younger blacks also were most likely to report doing less well financially today than four years ago, and that while blacks across the board disapprove of the Iraq war, the issue may be more salient for younger blacks at a time when Bush is at pains to deny that he would institute a draft if re-elected.
Bush’s gains among black Christian conservatives are equally obvious.
In the survey four years ago, Gore led Bush 69 percent to 11 percent among black Christian conservatives. This year, Kerry was ahead _ but only 49 percent to 36 percent.
The Bush administration has reached out to conservative black clergy with its faith-based initiative, and the Joint Center survey also found that blacks were less supportive than the general public of gay marriage or civil unions.
Lamont Couch, who worked as a community organizer for an interfaith effort in Florida and is now deputy director of the Palm Beach Republican GOP Action Headquarters, said his mother, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, offers evidence of the potential drift.
“My own mother would always vote Democratic, would never even think about voting Republican,” Couch said. But, he added, she is a devoted member of the Pentecostal Progressive Life-Giving Word Cathedral, where the pastor, without naming names, has urged parishioners to vote their presumably conservative moral beliefs.
The new poll also found that Sen. John Edwards was a more popular vice presidential choice among blacks than Sen. Joseph Lieberman was four years earlier, that Dick Cheney is nearly as unpopular as Bush and that Hillary Clinton is nearly as popular as her husband. Sen. Clinton captured higher ratings than Kerry, Colin Powell or Jesse Jackson.
And in one other startling result, the survey found that not only were 79 percent of blacks concerned about whether their votes would be counted Nov. 2, so too were 68 percent of the general population.
The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent, which means that if the same poll were done 100 times, with a new sample of voters each time, it would yield the same result, plus or minus 3.5 percent, 95 times out of 100.