- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

No other group of voters will affect Al Gore's chances of winning the presidency more than black Americans. But there is new poll evidence that suggests younger, independent black voters may be up for grabs.

Certainly, black voters are the Democrats' most loyal voting bloc, making up a large share of the party's base vote. Blacks contributed 17.1 percent of Bill Clinton's total vote in 1996 or 1 out of every 6 votes he got in that election.

Moreover, well more than 80 percent of black voters identify themselves as Democrats, a shift that began in the social and economic upheaval of the Great Depression and that broadened and deepened during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

But some tiny cracks are appearing in this monolithic voter bloc that may offer George W. Bush a chance to peel off a larger share of the black vote if he is willing to go after it.

"In recent years, fewer young African-Americans have identified with the Democratic Party than in the past," writes David Bositis in his new survey of black voting patterns and policy preferences for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (JCPES).

Mr. Bositis is the chief pollster and political analyst for the JCPES, a think tank here that studies issues of concern to black Americans, and his latest study is must reading for the Bush campaign if it wants to crack open Mr. Gore's strongest voting bloc.

His most surprising finding: "Only about 60 percent of 18- to 25-year-old African-Americans identified with the Democrats." While these young, black voters have not made the leap to the Republicans, the ones who do not identify with the Democrats consider themselves independents.

Another blockbuster finding about these younger black adults one that should disturb Democratic Party officials is that "a sizable portion of of them is sympathetic to the GOP's position on a significant number of important public policy issues."

"This represents a generational divergence in the black population, since African-Americans over age 50 are solidly aligned with the Democratic Party in both their voting behavior and their issues agenda," he says.

In what way are younger blacks changing their views? Consider these key findings:

• A strong 31.6 percent of this population are not liberal or moderates but "self-identified conservatives."

• "On education, 69.2 percent rate their local public schools as either fair or poor, and 76.4 percent support school vouchers for public, private or parochial schools."

• "A significant portion of younger African-Americans (29.6 percent) believe that crime and drugs are the most important national problems."

• "Significant percentages of younger African-Americans have expressed support for privatizing (or partially privatizing) Social Security, and many support the welfare reforms enacted in 1996."

Thus, Mr. Bositis concludes that there is "an underlying black conservatism on many issues." Black public opinion "is neither as liberal nor as uniform as observers in the press, politics and academia have thought."

Even so, the political ties between blacks and Democrats remain strong. Blacks have prospered in the economy of the '90s, with more blacks than whites saying for the first time that they are doing better financially than they were a year ago.

They give Mr. Gore a 69 percent favorability grade, compared to 90 percent for Mr. Clinton, but Mr. Bush does not do so badly either, earning a 43 percent favorable to 34 percent unfavorable score.

The black vote is strongest and thus will be more critical in the key battleground states Mr. Clinton won in 1996 and that Mr. Gore must carry if he is to defeat Mr. Bush: Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

At the same time, turnout forecasters predict that the black vote, like the overall vote, will be down this year, a prospect that does not bode well for Mr. Gore who must have a strong black turnout to win.

But another possibility that could affect the outcome of this election is if Mr. Bush makes an all-out pitch for black voters to support his reforms for giving inner-city blacks school choice vouchers so they can have the same school choice options that Mr. Gore and Joe Lieberman had for their kids (who did not go to public schools).

Or if Mr. Bush campaigns aggressively for personal retirement accounts so that younger, better-educated black workers can build investment wealth over their working lives instead of depending on the meager 1 percent to 2 percent gains they can expect from Social Security. Some will receive a negative return because so many blacks have a lower life expectancy.

These are powerful issues that have the potential to crack open the black vote, but Mr. Bush will have to go into their neighborhoods and make his pitch personally. The poll data put together by David Bositis suggests that if he does, he might be able to peel off 5 or 6 points from Al Gore's black vote and that would be enough to send him into retirement.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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