- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

Three years ago, many Democrats dismissed the Bush presidency as a likely four-year hiatus preceding the return of a Democrat to the White House in 2004. Some were angry about the election controversy, claiming an injustice had been done and promising Mr. Bush would serve just one term. Others portrayed Mr. Bush as inept, claiming he would be unable to pass legislation in such important areas as education and the economy.

But an interesting thing happened as Democratic Party planners sought out venues for the 2004 Inaugural ball: African-American voters, a core Democratic constituency, started showing signs of wavering.

Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC) has been taking the pulse of African-American voters since 1999. This year’s national poll of African-American registered voters shows the relationship between African-Americans and the Democratic Party is not over but is showing signs of strain.

One of the more surprising aspects of the poll was that none of the Democratic presidential candidates has yet set our collective souls on fire. Forty-two percent of African-American primary voters told us they still haven’t decided whom to support in their Democratic presidential primaries. Among those who have made up their minds, 13 percent favor Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. 10 percent Carol Moseley-Braun and 9 percent Al Sharpton, with Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt fourth at 7 percent.

In the BAMPAC poll, most African-Americans said they felt the Democratic Party has taken African-Americans for granted. The 2003 poll marked the first time in four years that the percentage of African-Americans who expressed displeasure with the Democratic Party (43 percent) outnumbered those who felt the party had served them well (40 percent).

While this trend has not been accompanied by a mass exodus to the Republican Party, 36 percent of African-American voters said they feel the GOP is taking steps to win them over. While this pales in comparison to the 52 percent who believe the GOP has ignored the African-American community, this latter figure is a significant improvement from the 67 percent who expressed this sentiment in 1999.

Moreover, the most popular and influential African-American political leader is a Republican — Secretary of State Colin Powell. For the first time since BAMPAC began measuring his popularity, Mr. Powell had the highest favorable rating of any African-American public figure, with 77 percent viewing him favorably and only 15 percent unfavorably. The perennial winner in this category, Rev. Jesse Jackson, had a 69 percent favorable rating, with a third as many people viewing him unfavorably (23 percent). Mr. Powell also was dubbed the most influential African-American political figure in the poll by a sizable margin over Mr. Jackson (49 percent vs. 21 percent).

President Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice also had relatively high marks (42 percent favorable, 17 percent unfavorable).

In addition to showing more interest in Republican personalities, African-Americans also are showing more of an affinity toward many policies associated with the GOP. For example, 70 percent of our survey group expressed support for giving people the option to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes for retirement, and 50 percent expressed support for charter schools.

It must be noted, however, that African-Americans are not totally sold on the Republican issue platform, by any means. Sixty-nine percent of African-American voters believe the country is “off on the wrong track,” and only one-third express approval of President Bush’s overall job performance, an 8 point drop from last year’s ratings.

While the dip was expected, since the 2002 poll was conducted at the outset of the war on terror, the current rating is still a marked increase from the 19 percent approval rating the president received from African-American voters in 2001.

Another more troubling sign for the Democratic Party is that 1 in 5 African-American registered voters would re-elect President Bush. If this trend holds at the polls, this would overwhelmingly exceed the 9 percent of African-Americans that voted for Mr. Bush in 2000.

The next presidential election is still more than a year away. Based on the BAMPAC poll, however, the Democrats would be wise to shift their attention from the planning of a 2004 Inaugural extravaganza to crafting a strategy to defeat a popular sitting president. If they can’t rebuild confidence among this key part of their voting base, 2004 will be a very long year.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee.

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