Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry has spent part of the past three Sundays at predominantly black churches in Florida and Ohio, as a new poll shows President Bush doing twice as well among black Americans as he did in 2000.
Turning out black voters at a higher percentage than the general population, Republican pollsters said, was critical to Democrats’ success in the 1998 congressional elections and to Democratic candidate Al Gore’s popular vote win in 2000.
Now Mr. Kerry is following the path that Mr. Gore and President Clinton paved to black church altars in the final days of their campaigns.
But the new poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found Mr. Kerry drawing 69 percent support among black residents and Mr. Bush receiving 18 percent, suggesting that Mr. Kerry has some distance to go.
“I think the poll is reflective in one sense of a trend I’ve seen the last six weeks, of a trend toward President Bush among African-American voters,” said Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican who is traveling to key states with other black Republicans to combat Democrats’ charges of voter intimidation.
“The Democrats are concerned about that, which is why you see this stepped up effort to demonize the president and the party by calling us racist,” Mr. Steele said.
Some Democrats simply don’t believe the numbers.
“If they’re saying Bush is at 18 percent among black voters, that’s a non-starter,” said Morris Reid, a Democratic communications strategist who said blacks consider Mr. Bush’s record so terrible that “if he gets 5 percent of the African-American vote, I’ll be shocked.”
Some Republicans also scoffed at the numbers privately, saying Mr. Bush will be lucky to match the 8 percent of the black vote that he received in 2000.
Still, Republicans and Democrats both think that if Mr. Kerry loses a significant part of the most reliably Democratic portion of the electorate, his chances for winning the election drop considerably.
But, Mr. Reid said, “If the African-American community shows up to 80 to 90 percent plus in the Kerry column, then this guy might become president. The real issue is: ‘Are they going to show up at 80-plus?’”
He said that turnout matters particularly in key states such as Ohio, where black voters make up a substantial portion of the electorate in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus.
Mr. Kerry has made stops on two of the past three weekends in predominantly black churches in Ohio, where the pastors have said he represents the next figure in the civil rights struggle.
Mr. Reid said such appearances do help turnout.
“This obviously is going to work to Kerry’s favor, and I think he’s really put an emphasis on this now,” he said.
But Mr. Steele said the church visits show desperation.
“He’s going because he’s losing traction in our community. We don’t know who he is,” he said.
“It is the phoniest form of exploitation that’s left in the Democratic quiver, whenever you see a Democrat, black or white, show up in a black church two weeks before an election,” he said.
The increase in black support for Mr. Bush can be found in their views on social issues, said joint center senior researcher David A. Bositis, who authored the study.
“There is increased support from blacks who identify themselves as ‘Christian conservatives,’ my best guess is due to gay marriage and faith-based initiatives,” Mr. Bositis said. “And from higher-income blacks because of the tax cuts.”
The survey showed that 46 percent of blacks oppose any recognition of same-sex “marriage,” 23 percent supported full marriage rights and 24 percent supported civil unions.
“At the same time, they have not yet embraced Senator Kerry to the extent that they did former President Clinton and former Vice President Gore,” said Eddie N. Williams, president of the Joint Center.
Several Republicans said their biggest fear is that Mr. Clinton, who is recovering from heart surgery, might start making calls to urban radio stations and appear at black churches himself, moves that could help drive up black voter turnout as it did for Mr. Gore in 2000.
Mr. Kerry yesterday told TV station WGAL in Lancaster, Pa., that Mr. Clinton might help him in that state.
“I think it’s possible in the next days, former President Clinton may be here, working,” Mr. Kerry said.
Mr. Bositis noted that Mr. Kerry, at 69 percent, is five percentage points behind where the center’s poll showed Mr. Gore before the 2000 election.
Ronald Walters, University of Maryland political science professor and Democratic analyst, said he is skeptical of the survey numbers showing older blacks, who lived through the 1960s civil rights movement, switching their support to the Republican Party.
“Some of these polls skew a little more to a Republican sampling frame, and it doesn’t pick up the registration boom we have out there,” Mr. Walters said.
And on how the vote will play out, Mr. Walters said the poll has been off in the past.
“This poll had 74 percent for Gore in 2000, and then 90 percent of blacks showed up for him in the exit polls,” he said.
Unlike Mr. Walters, though, Democratic political analyst Donna Brazile said she was not surprised by the shift in older blacks toward Republicans, but she said it won’t translate into votes on Election Day.
“Voters become more conservative as they grow in age, and I’m not surprised to see a rise there. The question is will they vote Republican, and the answer I think is no,” she said.
She said the Democratic Party should be encouraged by the shift of young black voters. The survey showed 71 percent of blacks 18 to 25 identify themselves as Democrats, up from 51 percent in 2000.
“I think the rise demonstrates the concern especially among youth, blacks have about the poor state of the economy and job market, and it’s good news for Democrats because it is a category of voters that have tended to drift away from the party,” she said.