American Renaissance

Black Vote Key to Kerry’s Charge

Patrick Reddy, Insight on the News, Feb. 17

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) followed up his stunning victories in Iowa and New Hampshire with success in every region of the country in early February, making him the undisputed front-runner among Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for president.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the hot candidate of 2003, has fallen steadily in the polls since the capture of Saddam Hussein hurt his antiwar argument. He has yet to win a real primary. Dean’s best hope for revival is an upset in the Wisconsin primary today, but polls show that is unlikely.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) won crucial contests Feb. 3, doing what they needed to do on their home turf. Clark edged Edwards by a few thousand votes in Oklahoma, while Edwards solidly carried the state of his birth, South Carolina.

But their momentum faltered badly in Virginia and Tennessee as Kerry scored double-digit victories in each state, leading Clark, who finished third in each race, to withdraw from the campaign and endorse Kerry. Kerry not only carried the white vote in both states, but also became the first Northerner to carry the black vote against a Southern Democrat since George McGovern defeated George Wallace in 1972.

In being the first Yankee since JFK to successfully build a biracial coalition in the South, Kerry became the presumptive Democratic nominee for 2004 and increased the possibility that he’ll be able to compete in Dixie with President Bush come November.

The outlines of the contest for the 2004 Democratic nomination emerged several months ago. Edwards and Clark were battling to become the favorite of moderate “New Democrats” in the Sun Belt. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry grabbed the advantage over Dean to be the champion of Northern liberals. In broad terms, Kerry became the candidate of liberals, independents and reformers from the Northeast (and perhaps Vietnam veterans everywhere).

What still was undetermined after New Hampshire was how black voters would respond to Kerry and Edwards or Dean and New York activist Al Sharpton. Either Clark or Edwards was believed to have a hidden advantage: Since 1972, the black vote has gone to men who grew up in the South every time.

Kerry’s victories in more than 95-percent white New Hampshire and Iowa meant that he and Dean were leading among (Northern) white voters. But since Northern Democrats have fared poorly with white Southerners over the last generation, neither Kerry nor Dean was expected to do well with them. Kerry won barely a quarter of the white vote in South Carolina, and Dean got less than 10 percent.

If history were any guide, the Democratic nomination in 2004 likely would be decided by the votes of African-Americans and Hispanics. Blacks make up roughly 20 percent of Democratic primary voters nationally and more than 40 percent of Democrats in most Southern states, while Hispanics constitute about 10 percent of the primary electorate and twice that in big states such as California, Texas and New York.

Returns in heavily Hispanic New Mexico and Arizona have shown Kerry to be leading among Mexican-Americans.

The minority vote will be pivotal in the Kerry-Edwards-Dean contest because the three men appear to have a solid base among white voters: Edwards in the conservative South and moderate Midwest, Kerry and Dean in the liberal Northeast and the Pacific Northwest. After starting off in nearly all-white Iowa and New Hampshire, the race headed South, and will be moving into New York, Georgia and California, states with huge minority populations, on March 2.

A week later, the South, with the highest percentage of black voters (roughly 40 percent of Southern Democrats), will largely finish its voting. On March 16, black votes could well decide the critical industrial state of Illinois, where they will cast about 30 percent of the primary vote. Minority voters appear to be well-positioned in February and March to determine the next Democratic nominee.

Minority votes will allow the white candidates to break through nationally: If Edwards can win the black or Hispanic vote in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Newark, he’ll be poaching on Kerry’s Northern home turf.

The stunning fact is that no Northern Democrat has won even 15 percent of the overall white vote in the South against a viable Southern candidate since the primaries became decisive in 1972. As expected, Edwards won both the black and white vote in his home turf of South Carolina. Yet in Virginia and Tennessee, Kerry scored big with black voters, overcoming a surprising pattern of the last generation.

In one of the biggest ironies in U.S. history, the Democratic Party has come to be dominated by the unlikely alliance of blacks and “New South” whites. Forget Iowa and New Hampshire — the children of yesteryear’s civil rights protesters have come together with the children of segregationists to elect the only Democratic presidents of the last generation: Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.

Together, Carter, Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore won every Southern primary they entered in 1976, 1980, 1992 and 2000. Together, black and white voters in the South command about 30 percent of the delegates to the Democratic convention. Anyone who sweeps both groups is almost guaranteed the Democratic nomination. No Democratic nominee from the South in the last 40 years has lost the black vote, either in the primaries or general elections.

A little history: For nearly 75 years after the Civil War, the black vote was strongly Republican in memory of President Abraham Lincoln. Black voters were the most Republican and white Southerners the most Democratic voters in the nation for essentially the same reason: memory of the Civil War.

Even in the depths of the Depression, a majority of black precincts supported Herbert Hoover in 1932. The Depression permanently changed things among Northern blacks: They voted for Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and have remained in the Democratic column ever since. The 1964 Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, openly stated that he was writing off the black vote and opposed the Civil Rights Act, telling an Atlanta audience that since Republicans would not win many black votes, they “should go hunting where the ducks are.”

In the previous three decades, Republican presidential nominees had averaged about 30 percent among blacks. Goldwater pulled in 3 percent.

Since then, the black vote has averaged about 90 percent Democratic. Accordingly, black voters often play a key role in internal Democratic Party politics. The black vote played little role in the Democratic nominations of 1968 and 1972. In 1968, the convention, still dominated by white political machines, chose the nominee, and blacks were divided in 1972.

However, 1976 was a watershed in black politics, setting up a pattern that continues today. Jimmy Carter, a white farmer from Georgia, swept the black vote against numerous northern liberals. Carter openly campaigned as a Southerner who had learned the value of racial reconciliation through the Civil Rights movement.

The black community helped Carter immeasurably through the support of Martin Luther King Jr.’s father and widow. As Mark Shields said, the King family endorsements “froze the party’s liberal linebackers,” who might have been suspicious of an unknown Southerner. The overwhelming black vote for Carter not only delivered crucial Southern primaries in North Carolina and Florida against George Wallace, but also helped him win the key states of Illinois, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Most commentators chalked this up to the fact that no big-name liberal candidate was competing with Carter for black votes, speculating that if someone such as Humphrey or Ted Kennedy had run, he would have carried the black community.

Four years later, Kennedy did run against Carter. A U.S. senator from Massachusetts was very unlikely to win white southern votes against a Georgia native, so Kennedy’s best bet in the South was among blacks. He lost the black vote by a 2-to-1 ratio in the critical early primaries of Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana, thereby losing any chance of winning the nomination. At the 1980 Democratic Convention, Carter won two-thirds of the black delegates on a crucial “rules fight” that ended up guaranteeing his renomination. Had the ratio among black delegates been reversed, Carter would have lost control of the convention.

As the 1984 presidential season began, David Broder speculated in the Washington Post that perhaps another Southerner would win the black vote again. He was right: The Rev. Jesse Jackson was born in South Carolina and went to college in North Carolina. He monopolized the black vote in two successive candidacies, winning 75 percent in 1984 and more than 90 percent in 1988. Also in 1984, Walter Mondale won 18 percent among blacks, compared to 3 percent for Gary Hart, and his extra 600,000 black votes tipped the Democratic nomination to Mondale by a 2-point margin.

Jackson decided to skip the presidential contest in 1992, after the nation’s highest elected black official, Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, entered the race. Wilder’s withdrawal before the New Hampshire primary opened the way for Bill Clinton to reassemble Carter’s Southern/black coalition against Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. Clinton won both the black and white Southern votes overwhelmingly on Super Tuesday and essentially clinched the nomination a week later with huge black majorities in Chicago and Detroit.

In 1996, Clinton was unopposed for renomination, but 2000 featured a major competition for the black vote between Al Gore of Tennessee and former NBA star and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey.

Of all the recent Northern Democrats who have run for president, Bradley made the most open appeal for racial reconciliation and black votes, always reminding audiences that he switched parties after Republicans opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He has had close friendships with black Americans since his days as a teen star basketball player in the early 1960s. He gained the endorsements of NBA greats such as Bill Russell, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Julius Erving, Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Indeed, Bradley ran the most openly pro-black campaign of any white candidate since Robert Kennedy in 1968.

Yet Gore countered with the strong support of the most popular politician in the black community: Clinton, whom writer Toni Morrison described as “the first black president.” Polls and official returns showed that voters who liked Clinton best were most likely to support Gore, hence Gore’s edge over Bradley in the black community.

Southern racists used to worry about an alliance between Northern Catholic immigrants and blacks that, with the help of labor unions, would bring liberalism to Dixie. Except for the brief moment in November 1960, when 75 percent of the black vote helped make John Kennedy the first Catholic president, such coalitions have been extremely rare.

In many big-city elections in the North, black candidates have received virtually the entire black vote while struggling to get even 15 percent of the vote of white Catholics or half of the most liberal white ethnic group, Jews.

By contrast, black-white contests for mayor in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte have been much more restrained. In fact, black candidates for governor and senator such as Wilder, Harvey Gantt and Ron Kirk have done better with white Southerners than Carl McCall did with white New Yorkers in 2002. Perhaps the most amazing fact of recent political history is that in 1996, Gantt ran ahead of Clinton among white voters in North Carolina.

In a way, the New South/black coalition makes sense: Southerners of all races share a common culture (accents, food, etc.) and often a common Baptist religion (outside of French-Catholic Louisiana and retirement-haven Florida, Baptists are the largest denomination in every Southern state and the District of Columbia).

Even Al Gore, who joked about his own legendary stiffness, can get fired up before a black church audience. To win in the South today, a modern Democrat must learn to balance the most conservative white voters in the country with the nation’s most liberal minority.

Anyone who does so consistently will become a national figure due to his or her potent coalition-building ability. Any Southern campaign is a trial run for the multiracial coalition that successful national Democrats must build. The Southern Democratic politician builds black-white coalitions naturally, while the Northern liberal does it out of a sense of duty. Even George Wallace, who made a career of race baiting, eventually recanted his segregationist past and built a successful biracial coalition in the 1980s.

Edwards’ hopes to revive the Clinton coalition succeeded in South Carolina. However, Kerry carried the black vote in Missouri handily. If Edwards was to have any hope of winning states outside the South, he needed to unify the black vote. He failed to do so on Feb. 10, when Kerry won 47 percent among Tennessee blacks, compared to 28 percent for Clark and 15 percent for Edwards.

Kerry did even better in Virginia, polling a surprising 61 percent in Virginia’s black neighborhoods to 20 percent for Edwards.

If Edwards cannot sweep the black vote, then Kerry’s support from Northern liberals will all but guarantee him the nomination. But if Edwards can combine overwhelming black support — about 30 percent of the delegates — with a bloc vote from white Southerners (about 15 percent), he’ll still have a chance at an upset.

Given Kerry’s current strong momentum, this may be Edwards’ last chance to win. And if Kerry continues his Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia success with blacks, he’ll be extremely formidable.

If any commentator had told a TV audience watching the white-on-black violence of the Birmingham demonstration in 1963 that black voters would someday coalesce with white Southerners to elect several pro-civil rights Southern Democratic presidents, he would have been labeled insane. But that is exactly what has happened over the last quarter-century.

In his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. hoped that someday black and white Southerners would “sit down at the table of brotherhood.” That is the story of the new Southern Democratic Party since 1976. In winning the black vote, Kerry apparently has convinced blacks to break with the recent Southern past. That fact is almost as surprising as the swift collapse of the Howard Dean effort.

Patrick Reddy is the pollster for California’s State Assembly Democrats. This analysis piece is a special to UPI, a sister wire service of Insight magazine.