Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Alarm bells went off in John Kerry’s campaign late last month when polling data revealed a surprisingly sharp drop in his support among black voters.

Fearing much of the pre-debate erosion in Mr. Kerry’s polling numbers came from his party’s base, including its loyal black vote, the Kerry high command moved quickly last week to more aggressively reach out to African-American voters.

There have been numerous reports and signals black voters were not as enthused about Mr. Kerry as they had been about Al Gore in 2000 or Bill Clinton in 1996 (90 percent of blacks voted for Mr. Gore vs. an anemic 8 percent for George Bush).

Democratic state chairmen in the South have told me black voters were not as energized about the aloof Massachusetts liberal who has not been particularly close to black leaders throughout his 20-year Senate career, rarely championing their causes and sometimes at odds with them on policy.

There were complaints throughout the black political leadership earlier this year that Mr. Kerry and his party had too often taken them for granted. He had no blacks among the top senior advisers on his campaign staff.

Mr. Kerry’s strategists thought black voters were a given and had nowhere else to go. Then they saw the Pew Research Center polling data that suggested potential problems with blacks, problems they needed to repair.

The Pew report acknowledged “Kerry continues to hold a big lead among African-Americans” but added “his advantage is narrower than it was last month.” Was it ever.

In head-to-head match ups with President Bush, Mr. Kerry’s support among black voters had fallen from 83 percent in August to 73 percent now, while Mr. Bush’s black support doubled, from 6 percent to 12 percent. Clearly, black enthusiasm for Mr. Kerry had deteriorated.

“John Kerry should be doing much better among African-Americans at this juncture, given that African-Americans are a critical segment of the Democratic Party’s base,” says Alvin Williams, president of the Black America’s Political Action Committee, a conservative PAC that gives money to political candidates.

Last week, Mr. Kerry began surrounding himself with black leaders to begin repairing the damage. Jesse Jackson was hired as a senior adviser and put on Mr. Kerry’s campaign plane. A dozen black congressional surrogates were sent out to urban voting districts in Midwestern battleground states where Mr. Kerry’s polls have dropped in the last month.

Mr. Kerry addressed a hastily arranged “religious summit meeting” Monday with Mr. Jackson and 300 black religious leaders. He was scheduled to be interviewed on the Black Entertainment Network in primetime Thursday. Other events with black groups are being added to his campaign schedule.

But there is more going on here than just black disenchantment with Mr. Kerry. While it has not received much attention in the news media, black identification with the Democratic Party has been declining in recent years.

Polling by BAMPAC this summer and by other black organizations showed younger black professionals registering in larger numbers as independents, instead of Democrats, and there has been a small but nonetheless significant rise in black Republican registration, too.

A poll in 2000 by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a prominent black policy institute, found 74 percent of blacks identified themselves as Democrats. But that fell to 63 percent in 2002.

Another 20 percent of black voters call themselves independents, while 10 percent identify as Republicans.

Receiving less attention is the coolness, even patent dislike, many black intellectual leaders have about Mr. Kerry. Much of it was stoked in 1992 when he criticized affirmative action in a speech at Yale, calling it an “inherently limited and divisive program” that “kept Americans thinking in racial terms.”

In an interview with a group of black columnists earlier this year, Mr. Kerry gave them the names of black leaders he talked to regularly, including Princeton professor Cornel West, a leading black leftist who holds Mr. Kerry in utter contempt. He called Mr. Kerry “milquetoast and mediocre” and “ambivalent” toward blacks, and says he did not “know anybody at all who’s close to John Kerry.”

Even so, most Democratic leaders believe black voters will turn out in overwhelming numbers for Mr. Kerry. “I would not worry about the so-called erosion because in the end it [the black vote] is going to come back,” Democratic turnout strategist Donna Brazile told me.

But right now the polling numbers and anecdotal reports suggest a growing percentage of blacks are not wild about Mr. Kerry, whose campaign has written off the South, where the black vote is highest. There is a clear erosion in this once loyal Democratic voter bloc, notably among suburban voters, that shows no sign of going away.

It wouldn’t take much of a shift to dramatically affect the outcome of this election. A 12 to 15 percent defection in the black vote would all but erase Mr. Kerry’s chances in November.

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

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