The race that nobody's talking about -- yet

Does Sunday's sharp exchange between the Rev. Al Sharpton and Democratic front-runner Howard Dean hold a deeper message about the mood of black voters?

By Josh Benson

Published January 14, 2004 1:40AM (EST)

Al Sharpton, the only candidate spending time in the District of Columbia ahead of its nonbinding primary on Tuesday, was talking to a group of students at Anacostia High School about self-empowerment. It begins with self-respect, Sharpton told a few dozen students sitting in the school auditorium. As an example, he urged the females in the audience never to stand for ill-treatment by male peers who wanted get cozy with them without being seen together in public.

"You shouldn't be nobody's sneak date," Sharpton said.

He then told the students that he saw a parallel in the way that Washington's heavily black electorate was being treated by his opponents in the race, and by the Democratic Party establishment, who, he said, were making the Jan. 13 election in D.C. into a "sneak primary." Democrats are trying to win some love on the sly, in other words, without showing some public commitment.

"I think that the assumption by the other candidates is that they won't have to be accountable to the African-American community," he told reporters afterward, "and that whoever the nominee is, we will have to vote for them anyway because we won't have anywhere else to go."

The sometimes uneasy relationship between African-Americans and the Democratic Party flashed into the open on Sunday, when Sharpton attacked front-runner Howard Dean at an Iowa debate for his failure to hire any blacks to a cabinet-level position during his 10 years as governor of Vermont. It was the campaign's other African-American candidate, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who came to Dean's defense, scolding Sharpton for instigating a "racial screaming match."

In some regards, the Sharpton-Dean-Braun exchange captured the divided and unpredictable mood of African-American voters as the primary season heads toward its first votes. Thus far, little attention has been focused on African-American support, given the intense focus by the candidates and the media on the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with negligible black populations.

As the sharp exchange at the debate indicated, though, the competition for this largely uncommitted but vital segment of the Democratic electorate may soon become more pronounced, especially as the race moves to states with bigger blocs of African-American voters.

The lack of attention being paid to what's happening in D.C.'s primary mostly reflects the fact that it doesn't count for much. It was conceived by the district's political leaders mostly as a vehicle to advance the cause of D.C. statehood. Five of the candidates aren't even participating, for fear of offending "first in the nation" New Hampshire. (This has been no hindrance to Sharpton, who doesn't expect to win and who often tells audiences, "I'm not running for a season -- I'm running for a reason.")

In 1988, black voters propelled Jesse Jackson to his strong showing, and in 2000, they played a decisive role in speeding Al Gore to victory over Bill Bradley, but today there are few signs of whether they're going to break strongly for any one candidate. And given this year's primary calendar, with several decisive primaries in racially diverse states -- including South Carolina and Michigan --taking place in early February, the minority vote will be pivotal.

"The black vote could be very important in this [primary] election, but it's still very much in the air," said David Bositis, senior policy analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research group that deals with African-American issues. "The question is whether there's a candidate who catches on and gets a significant portion of that vote."

Bositis pointed to polls in South Carolina, the first real primary with a heavy black vote, to illustrate his point -- most public polls show chunks of the vote going to several of the candidates.

Michigan, another racially diverse state that votes early, presents a similar picture. "The African-American right now is up for grabs in the state of Michigan," said Melvin "Butch" Hollowell, the state's Democratic Party chairman. "I can say that with real certainty. Every candidate has a different cachet and a different message, and there's no question that anyone is running away with it -- not even the black candidates. I think these voters want to see more."

Black voters have long been a core constituency in the Democratic Party nationally and constitute a vital component in any winning coalition. Large black voter turnout was an important factor in making the 2000 election as close as it was. And this dynamic is particularly crucial in the South: As an example, more than 53 percent of the Democrats who voted in South Carolina in the 2000 election were black. Conversely, the Democrats suffered a disastrous series of reverses in 2002, in part, because of low voting levels of black voters in places like Georgia.

Given this year's primary calendar, African-American voters are likely to play a similarly important role in deciding the Democratic nominee. After the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27, the contests move on to a number of states with a high percentage of black voters -- including South Carolina on Feb. 3 and Michigan on Feb. 7. Just about every campaign -- with the possible exception of Howard Dean's -- will depend on a strong showing over that period for continued viability.

Hence, even as the campaigns focus a disproportionate amount of attention on the first two contests, each campaign has simultaneously positioned itself to court the black vote. The effectiveness of those appeals has been difficult to measure, in part because there are few philosophical differences between the candidates on the big issues for minority voters, such as public schools, drug abuse, affordable healthcare or affirmative action. "If you look at the nine candidates, you won't find a dime's worth of difference between them on affirmative action," said U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who helped create the early primary in the nation's capital to call attention to the issue of statehood for the district. "If you look at Joe Lieberman, who's considered perhaps the most conservative candidate -- he's the lead sponsor on [the pro-statehood measure] No Taxation Without Representation.

"On other issues which are color-laden, I have a hard time figuring out which is the best [candidate]," she said.

Perhaps because of the lack of substantive differences on those issues, there is now more scrutiny on the stylistic differences in each candidate's approach to race.

Dean, who is considered the front-runner for the nomination because of his strong position in Iowa and New Hampshire, has made race relations a central part of his campaign oratory, saying that "dealing with race is about educating white folks."

But at the Jan. 11 Black & Brown Coalition debate on MSNBC, Dean's stated desire to be a racial healer invited ridicule from Sharpton, who said that Dean would have to do "more than just talk" about race, and pointedly questioned why Dean had not appointed any person of color to a cabinet post in 10 years as governor of Vermont.

Dean, looking distinctly uncomfortable during the exchange, noted that "a senior member of [his] staff" was a minority. And, Dean said, he had more endorsements from black and Latino candidates than any other Democratic candidate, an assertion that Sharpton ridiculed.

"I think you only need cosigners if your credit is bad," he said.

While Dean's selling point has been his forthrightness, Clark and Edwards, both Southerners, have each borrowed a page from Bill Clinton by basing their argument to black voters on their own modest upbringings and their formative experiences with race and racism. Clark is also stressing his background in the Army -- one of America's most racially diverse institutions -- and has spent heavily on television ads featuring testimony from retired Maj. Patricia Williams, a former colleague who is African-American.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, too, has been able to point to the interracial bonds he formed during his military service in Vietnam, and also emphasizes his progressive legislative record. Lieberman talks about his experiences marching for civil rights in the 1960s. U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt talks about his record in the House, and of his close alliances with heavily minority unions.

It's too soon to tell if these strategies are working.

The flare-up at the debate is only the latest incident in which Dean's ability to appeal to black voters is being called into question. A running theme of the media's coverage of Dean -- to Dean's irritation -- has been that his following, at least visibly, remains overwhelmingly white.

As the New York Times wrote of Dean's efforts to attract more of a diverse following: "[Dean] was not active in the civil rights movement, and has neither the political network of black ministers and community leaders nor the personal relationships that have helped other white candidates. His campaign's heavy use of the Internet has largely bypassed poorer pockets of African-Americans and Latinos, and issues like crime, drugs and failing public schools have not been centerpieces of his message."

But measuring by an ability to attract African-American followers to events, none of Dean's competitors has been significantly more successful. At an event in Harlem several weeks ago for Clark, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., announced his endorsement for Clark and introduced a number of elected minority officials from New York City to do the same. Virtually all of the VIPs at the front of the room -- an impressive group that included veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters and Tuskegee Airmen, celebrated black military units from an era before integration -- were black or Latino. The audience was almost entirely white.

There are a number of possible reasons for the lack of discernible movement among black voters. One is that minorities, along with the majority of voters in the 48 states that vote after Jan. 27, have simply not been engaged yet because of the focus on Iowa and New Hampshire. Another is the closeness of the candidates on issues of importance to those minority voters. And yet another is simply that African-Americans, like so many other Democratic voters, are simply looking for the best general election candidate to run against President Bush.

"I think black voters fall into that 30 percent of American voters that are not going to vote for George Bush under any circumstances, and there are not huge differences among the Democratic candidates," said Wayne Parent, a professor at Louisiana State University who co-edited the book "Blacks and the American Political System." "Therefore, if you're an Anybody But Bush person, and you're in a situation where there's no bad candidate and there's no outstanding candidate, you probably just tend to wait it out."

Though the District of Columbia is largely black, its reduced field and expected low turnout means that it will likely provide little more than a symbolic lift to the winner. It may not be until after South Carolina and Michigan that African-American voters coalesce around a candidate.

Even the endorsements of prominent African-American officials touted by each campaign provide little guide. Dean has Jesse Jackson Jr., among other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Clark has Rangel and civil rights leader Andrew Young. Gephardt has South Carolina's most prominent black official, James Clyburn. And so on.

Not only are prominent endorsements spread among the candidates, but many experts also feel that the impact of endorsements on a primary election is somewhat limited in any case. "One thing we've learned from recent elections is that support from black leadership is important in terms of turnout, and maybe goosing the vote a little bit in their area, but isn't as important as it once was in terms of swaying the vote," said Parent. "I know for fact that when black leaders support one Democratic candidate from a list, that candidate doesn't necessarily go to the top. And compounding that this year is that those endorsements are all over the place."

So what would it take to galvanize the black vote? As far as some Democrats are concerned, the most important thing any candidate can do right now to win broad support from African-Americans is simply to show an ability to win in November. "This is a sophisticated electorate," said Hollowell, the Michigan party chair. "The country as whole has suffered under this president, but the Africa-American community has really been damaged by George Bush's policies ... You have to be able to convey that you believe in advocating issues that will lift up this community, but at the same time, people want to know that you can take those ideas and win with them. I think the most effective candidate is going to win the support of the African-American community."

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

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2004 Elections Howard Dean Joe Lieberman John F. Kerry