Transforming the Black Vote

How the Democrats' loss could be the Republicans' gain.

With striking consistency, African-Americans can be counted on to deliver their votes in overwhelming numbers to Democratic candidates. For over forty years, 85% or more have cast ballots for the Democratic nominee in both congressional and presidential elections, making them the most valuable and relied upon demographic group in the Democratic Party.

However, in this very tough election season, with other key demographic groups--young people, Latinos, and women—rapidly peeling away, Democrats now find their most loyal group singularly unenthused about participating in the upcoming election, a prospect rife with unfortunate consequences.

Recent polls have shown only 24% of black voters are excited about the November election. The same polls, however, show over twice as many white voters eager to cast an anti-Democratic, anti-Obama vote this fall.  Democrats now find themselves in a desperate mode to rally African-American turnout or face a complete electoral catastrophe.

Some attribute this malaise to the fact that Barack Obama will not be on the ballot in November. He still remains personally popular in the black community, perhaps just not at the staggering 96% vote level he received in 2008. Others say blacks are just as angry as everyone else about the economic situation they find themselves in but because of their antipathy toward the GOP, the only way they can demonstrate their displeasure is by not voting.

President Obama seems to have concluded that it is, indeed, his absence on the ballot that’s making blacks not dash to the polls, and not any discontent toward him or his policies. Speaking recently to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), he said:

A lot of folks may be feeling like politics is something they get involved in every four years when there's a presidential election, but they don't see why they should bother the rest of the time…I need everybody here to go back to your neighborhoods, and your workplaces, to your churches, and barbershops, and beauty shops. Tell them we have more work to do. Tell them we can't wait to organize. Tell them that the time for action is now.

Still, it was an interesting audience in which to give an exhortation on the need to re-elect Democrats, given the self-immolation the CBC is currently going through. In recent months, the CBC has found itself in the crosshairs of a national debate on the ethical transgressions of the Democratically-controlled Congress.

First, Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Maxine Waters (D-CA) are both facing upcoming ethics trials involving tax fraud and influence peddling, respectively. Rangel and Waters' initial "bring-it-on" bravado toward the idea that their trials be televised during the fall elections sent shock waves throughout Democratic ranks until cooler heads prevailed and the trial was bumped to after the election.

Then Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) was caught on a lobbyist’s answering machine leaving a message which sounded more like a shakedown than a request for campaign contributions. Norton, no stranger to ethical peccadilloes, almost lost her first election to Congress because she and her husband decided to not pay taxes for seven years. Finally, Sanford Bishop (D-GA) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) were accused of handing out scholarships to relatives from the CBC Scholarship Foundation like candy from a Pez dispenser

The CBC’s troubles had initially placed the Democratic Leadership in a tight quandary. Their hope was to strike a delicate balance between enforcing accountability and showing support for its more ethically-challenged members. At first, when the Rangel charges surfaced, many in the Democratic Party, including Nancy Pelosi and Obama, publicly distanced themselves. Obama even proffered that Rangel should do the honorable thing and fall on his sword.

However, as polls continued to show an ever more probable election disaster for Democrats, fears arose that a lack of support for Rangel would create a serious backlash in the black community and further depress election turnout. So, public peace was made, as evidenced by a gala fundraiser the party threw for Rangel in September. While Waters and the others have not yet been given the special “Rangel treatment,” no public utterances urging them to quit have surfaced either.

Despite this apparent unity, the difficulty for white progressives is the balancing act they must perform in order to ensure cooperation and trust with the CBC and its attendant allies outside of Congress--or face electoral disaster. That Charlie Rangel would be initially dismissed by Nancy Pelosi and Obama is startling in itself. That Waters’ aides would be ousted from a Pelosi press conference for carrying “Free Maxine” signs is stunning. Having even taken the chance to offend any of this core constituency in an election year is mind blowing.

To some observers, however, it really does not seem like that much of a gamble for Democratic leaders to take. When an ethnic group votes with the consistency blacks have over the years, it remains a fair bet that no matter how badly treated, in the end this constituency will keep on coming back to the Democrats for more.

This dependency on the Democratic Party has proven baffling to most Republicans. They have never been able to square the fact that African-Americans continually throw their lot in with Democrats, whose policies have seen to the systematic destruction of the black community over the last half-century.

If, as Republicans say, 2010 is turning out to be a stunning rebuke of Democratic economic policies, then their argument is that African-Americans should be the ones leading the charge.

While the nation as a whole has suffered grievously during the last two years of Democratic rule, blacks have suffered in a hugely disproportionate way. The unemployment rate among blacks has reached a 25-year high and now stands at an incredible 17.3%, compared to an unemployment rate of 8.8% for whites. Furthermore, the newly released census figures, which saw the national poverty level reach 15%, also saw the black poverty rate climb above 25%.

While not banking on this economic reality to suddenly produce a metamorphosis in the black community, it still could move the ball a little closer toward the GOP side. After all, the gap isn’t very wide. Most political analysts believe if Republicans can attract 10% more of the black vote, it would cripple the Democratic Party on the national stage

Republicans have seen some additional evidence to support their tentative belief that shifting black support off the Democratic bench may finally be attainable. The first and perhaps most important sign has been in the number of African-Americans involved in the Tea Party movement.

While the media and Democrats tend to portray the Tea Party as one large Klan convention, evidence shows the Tea Party to have a racial composition that nearly mirrors that of the nation. As the Tea Party grows in power, so, correspondingly, will the role and influence of black conservatives.

Secondly, as an incubator of conservative beliefs, it was from the Tea Party that many of this year’s record number of black Republican candidates emerged. In fact, 32 black Republican congressional candidates have run in 2010, the most since Reconstruction. While that number has been pared down through the primary process to 13, it still represents the beginning of the transformational image of the GOP from its current view as a party of only white men.

However small or realistic these indicators may be of a serious shift in the black community’s political allegiance, Democrats need to be very careful how they respond to these emerging trends. Having African-Americans sit out this year’s election, however harmful in the short run, may not prove fatal, but losing even a small number of them to the opposition will.

Frank Crimi is a freelance writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, or contact him at


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