How Will Black Voters Split in the Democratic Presidential Contest?

Posted February 28, 2003 at 2:36pm

It isn’t just Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) who are targeting black voters in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The top-tier hopefuls (all of them white) also know that black voters are important. [IMGCAP(1)]

The big question is whether those voters will support a black candidate or opt for one of the Democrats who actually has a chance of being nominated in Boston next summer.

While black voters don’t play a significant role in the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, they’ll play a larger part in a number of states still likely to be at the front of the schedule, including South Carolina, Michigan, Virginia and Missouri.

Each of the candidates has a rationale for believing that he or she will do well among the key constituency.

North Carolina Sen. John Edwards’ Southern roots make him potentially appealing to black voters in the critically important South. Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) hopes that his place on the 2000 Democratic ticket (right next to Al Gore) makes him both a known commodity and an appealing one to African-Americans, especially to those still angry about the way George W. Bush was elected president.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s calls for social and economic justice and his opposition to the war against Iraq should resonate with black Democrats. Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) can cite his years fighting for issues such as health care, trade and education, his close association with organized labor and his expected endorsements from many black Members of Congress as he reaches out to black voters.

And Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry will argue that his stands on the issues, stature and ability to defeat Bush will attract black primary voters, and that his considerable efforts to reach out to the black community will bear political fruit.

But it’s far from clear that any of the white Democratic presidential candidates will have an overwhelming advantage among black voters, and some of them start off with obvious problems.

Lieberman’s strong support for a war against Iraq, his relative moderation (particularly on affirmative action and school vouchers) and the strain in black-Jewish relations limit his appeal among black voters. Dean comes from lily-white Vermont, and according to one knowledgeable observer, “In the South, coming from Vermont is like coming from Mars.” The former governor’s initial reaction that the flag issue in South Carolina was a matter for the state to decide suggests that he has “a tin ear on race,” as one Democratic consultant put it.

And Kerry may have trouble connecting with working-class whites, let alone Southern (and rural) African-Americans.

“It may be that Kerry can prove himself with African-American voters. But I’d need to see him connecting with them before I’d believe it,” says David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that concentrates on issues of concern to the black community.

Sharpton and Braun don’t have to worry about whether they can connect with blacks.

Early polls show Sharpton doesn’t have the stratospheric ratings among blacks that Jesse Jackson did when he ran for president in the 1980s, but he will likely be a factor in the race.

A late-January Zogby poll found a majority of likely black voters (53 percent) viewing Sharpton favorably, while a quarter had an unfavorable opinion of him. National Democratic polls generally put him in the 4 percent to 7 percent range in ballot tests.

In state polls, Sharpton generally draws in the low single digits, but in surveys in New York and New Jersey he has been at or near double digits.

Sharpton has proved himself to be a fiery and engaging orator, who can make a crowd laugh one minute and vent its anger at Bush the next. Ultimately, he has the best chance of anyone to tap into African-American (and he hopes Hispanic) feelings about social and economic equality and foreign policy.

Still, he isn’t likely to reach Jackson’s 1988 level of support, if only because Jackson’s image was more favorable than Sharpton’s is now among African-Americans. And unlike 1988, many of the white candidates in the 2004 race are sufficiently liberal to attract black support.

Jackson won four Super Tuesday primaries in March 1988, as well as the Michigan caucuses later that month. He raised $22.5 million for his campaign and put together a full-fledged national campaign. Sharpton is not likely to have those resources or much appeal to white liberals, especially given the rest of the field.

Braun is likely to be less of a factor in the black community unless she puts together a serious political organization. She didn’t show much pizzazz at the DNC winter meeting, but since her main message seems to be about gender rather than race, she has the potential to draw support from black women.

Black voting behavior in the Democratic race will depend on which of the Democratic hopefuls connect with which parts of the black community. Sharpton and Braun begin with an advantage, but nobody is likely to match Jackson’s 1988 showing.