Blacks may tilt races to Democrats

Turnout drives in key states could boost the House.

Could this be the year that African-Americans truly deliver for the Democrats?

For decades, the black vote - one of the most monolithic blocs in the country - has been the hope of the Democratic Party.

Yet it hasn't always met officials' expectations. In the last presidential election, for instance, African-American voter turnout was the lowest since 1924.

But Democrats, as well as independent pollsters and political analysts, see signs that in a year of tight races, this constituency could very well make the difference - enough to deliver the House to the Democrats, and perhaps put Al Gore over the top.

For one thing, many of the key tossup states - such as Ohio and Michigan - have large African-American populations. For another, the Democrats and the black community are pouring more money and effort into getting out the vote than ever before. And while much of the country may feel ho-hum about the issues this year, many blacks feel issues like racial profiling and Supreme Court nominations speak directly to them.

"This is a presidential election where the potential of African-Americans to affect the outcome is very, very significant," says David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which focuses on minorities.

According to Mr. Bositis, African-Americans could be the "decisive" vote for the presidency and the House, and they could tip as many as five Senate seats to Democrats. Even though a Democratic Senate is a long shot, the gains would be enough to weaken Republican control.

For its part, the Congressional Black Caucus estimates that all it would take is a 1 percent increase in African-American turnout for Democrats to retake the House - for which they need a net gain of seven seats. "If we can increase [turnout] by 1 percent in 13 different districts, we could do it," says Michael Elazier, CBC spokesman. This Friday, the CBC begins a bus tour to get out the vote in close districts, such as New Jersey's 3rd and Ohio's 12th.

What inspires such confidence?

Geography, for one. Key battleground states such as Michigan, Missouri, Arkansas, Ohio, and even Florida have large African-American populations. And while much has been made of the Latino vote, three-quarters of Hispanics reside in Texas and California, with Texas already certain for George W. Bush and California likely for Mr. Gore.

"In this election, the black vote is much more important than the Hispanic vote," says Bositis. "The reason why the black vote is so critical this time is because the places that are competitive are the places where blacks live."

Surprise of 1998

Recent history provides another clue to the potential influence of African-Americans. In the 1998 midterm elections, national black turnout declined just as overall voter turnout did. But it increased substantially in several key states, handing crucial victories to Democrats.

These voters were part of a targeted mobilization effort. In Georgia, for instance, black turnout went from 19 percent of the overall vote in 1994 to 29 percent in 1998. In neighboring South Carolina, it went from 21 percent to 26 percent.

"If they are able to bring out a big turnout, they'll be able to do what they did in '98," says independent pollster John Zogby. "A heightened turnout could put Gore over the top in some key states."

The Gore campaign is hoping to capitalize on the lessons from '98. Donna Brazile, who directed the 1998 get-out-the-vote drive that produced such successful results in the South, is Gore's campaign manager.

Like two years ago, the Democrats will bring out their biggest gun - President Clinton, who is popular among African-Americans. He will conduct interviews with the minority media, and tape radio spots and phone messages that are aimed at the black community. He's also on the speaker and fundraising circuit for minorities.

The NAACP - the nation's largest civil-rights organization - is spending more money and attention on energizing its base. For the first time, it's created an affiliate group, called the National Voter Fund, to produce ads that educate voters about the issues. The spots directly criticize certain Republican candidates, even though the NAACP says it is nonpartisan. The organization is also putting new emphasis on youth and the Internet, targeting battleground states.

The GOP, for its part, is embarking on a new strategy of its own to reach blacks, whom they have often ignored in the past. Last week, it launched a series of nationwide radio ads saying, "Look, we know what you think Republicans are like, but we're working hard to show you who we really are." The radio campaign is "absolutely historic and unprecedented," says Republican National Committee spokesman Clifford May.

In part because of the GOP's outreach to the black community, some experts caution against assuming that greater African-American turnout will necessarily benefit the Democrats.

African-Americans will be "a little less pro-Democrat" this year, predicts Curtis Gans, an expert on turnout at the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Gore doesn't have the same rapport with the black community as Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush is not as vilified as Newt Gingrich, and the GOP is targeting the community with messages that appeal - such as school vouchers, he says.

Energized about issues

But some African-Americans warn about underestimating their potential, and point out that they are more energized this year than in the past.

For the first time in years, this election involves issues directly related to them: racial profiling, Supreme Court appointments, hate-crimes legislation, and gun control, to name a few. At the same time, they have significant gains to protect: the lowest unemployment and poverty on record, and the highest minority home- and business-ownership ever recorded.

If Democrats take back the House, African-Americans stand to gain political power, ascending to three weighty committee chairmanships, and 19 subcommittee chairmanships.

"The stakes are seen as very serious," says Russell Adams, chairman of the African-American studies department at Howard University here. Indeed, pollsters have been measuring a high level of intensity - that is, certainty of voting - among blacks, though Republican pollster Ed Goeas says it slipped back recently.

Some of that intensity comes through in conversations with African-American voters and front-line organizers.

Simone Marie Mason, a lively sophomore enjoying some autumn sunshine at Howard University in Washington, admits that no one can replace Bill Clinton, and that no one should assume that all blacks vote Democratic. On the other hand, she's still for Gore, stating: "When you look at the two candidates, there's no question who's for the black community and who's not."

Her friend Darryl Gaiter - one of over 1,300 Howard students who signed up in a campus NAACP voter-registration drive - agrees. Both he and Simone believe that only Gore can be trusted with Supreme Court appointments, and keeping affirmative action alive.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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