Come home, Bill Clinton

Aside from Florida, Arkansas is the last Southern state Democrats may still be able to win. But many blacks there remain ambivalent toward Kerry.

By Gary Younge
Published October 27, 2004 2:49PM (EDT)

Route 65 dips, rises and swings through the Ozark Mountains, past rib shacks offering hickory hams and small stores emblazoned with the Confederate flag. "The past is never dead," wrote Mississippi's famous son, William Faulkner, of the South. "It's not even past."

And so it is as you pass through the whitest part of Arkansas, a former Confederate state, where some residents openly embrace the lost cause to defend a discredited institution -- slavery -- almost 150 years after it was defeated.

As I arrive in Little Rock the sun is high and the air is humid. This is the deep South, where salad comes with fried chicken and race comes with everything: It remains the single most consistent indicator of where you live, whom you date, what TV programs you watch, where you pray and, not least, how you vote.

In his office at the state's Democratic Party headquarters, Rodney Shelton, who is responsible for outreach to black voters, shows me two maps of Arkansas. One indicates the breakdown of the vote in 2000, with the heavily Democratic areas shaded in progressively darker tones; the other reveals the breakdown of the state by race, colored in the same way. The patterns are virtually identical -- the darker the shade on the map indicating Democratic support, the darker the people who live there.

"The black vote is absolutely critical to the Democratic vote," says Shelton. "We just can't win without it." What is true for Arkansas is equally true for the whole country. The Democrats have won only one election since the Second World War (in 1964) without the black vote. African-Americans make up more than 10 percent of voters in a third of the crucial battleground states, including Ohio, Florida and Michigan. Yet a recent poll by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows that while black Americans have an incredibly low opinion of President Bush -- giving him just a 22 percent approval rating -- they have yet to warm to Democratic challenger John Kerry. In 2000 the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, got 80 percent of the black vote to Bush's 9 percent. This year, the center's polling shows Kerry at just 68 percent while the president has doubled his share to 18 percent.

"This poll is showing a certain amount of black ambivalence in terms of election-year issues that resonate within the community, and their relationship with Sen. Kerry," said Eddie Williams, the president of the center. "They have not yet embraced Sen. Kerry to the extent that they did former President Clinton and former Vice President Gore." Of one of the central planks of Bush's agenda, the war on terror, Hank Wilkins, 22, an African-American, said: "Black Americans have a history of being terrorized in America, so the idea that we could be attacked in our own country was not something new to us."

The other plank, the war in Iraq, plays badly with most. "The domestic issues and the foreign policy issues are intertwined," said Vivien Flowers, 35. "If you look at who's fighting out there, it's the folks who don't have jobs or healthcare who joined the Army. They were sent for a reason and that reason no longer exists."

Added to this is the way Bush gained office: the debacle in Florida when a disproportionate number of African-American voters were either turned away at the polls or had their votes discounted. "A lot of people feel that Bush did not win the 2000 election, and a huge number of black voters were disenfranchised in Florida," said Dale Charles, president of Little Rock's NAACP chapter.

The center's poll also shows that 63 percent of blacks are concerned that their vote might not be even be counted on Nov. 2. This was an issue Gore stressed on Sunday as he visited black churches in Florida, his presence searing the experience of 2000 into the minds of black voters in the hope that it would galvanize them next week. "If any of you felt frustrated or angry about what was done four years ago, I want to encourage you not to ignore those feelings," he said. "Don't turn it into angry actions. Love thy neighbor. But vote for your future."

When it comes to black America in general and Arkansas in particular, Kerry's greatest strength seems to be that he is not Bush; his greatest weakness is that he is not Clinton, who hails from Arkansas.

"I think we were spoiled with Bill Clinton," said the NAACP's Charles. The former president's easy personality and Southern ways made him a hit with African-Americans, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison once famously describing him as "our first black president." Charles added: "People are picturing someone coming close, so that's tough on Kerry because I don't see any candidate measuring close."

Clinton's heart condition has kept him away from the campaign trail in the past six weeks. Now that he has sufficiently recovered, black Arkansans hope he will head home soon to work his magic.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been out plying their socially conservative message, leafleting cars outside black churches, reminding voters of their positions on abortion and gay marriage, on which there will be a referendum on Election Day. In a community where the church remains the single most powerful mobilizing force, their strategy has had some traction, but not enough to erase the impression that Republicans stand for the white and the wealthy.

"I know same-sex marriage is totally against the world of God, and I think John Kerry supports it," said John Nunn, at his soul food restaurant near Marvell in the Mississippi Delta. "But I'm voting Democrat for sure. I don't think Republicans have a clue about poor people."

When Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 he told an aide: "We have lost the South for a generation." Forty years on it looks as if they may have lost it forever.

The political realignment of the South and racial realignment of the Democratic Party are now virtually complete. The Democrats once dominated the South through their most loyal base, white racists. Now African-Americans form the bedrock of their support. Meanwhile Republicans saw an opening by concentrating on the racial fears of whites, post-civil rights, in what has become known as Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy."

Now the South is staunchly Republican. Integration of the races has brought about the segregation of the parties -- Southern whites vote overwhelmingly Republican; most blacks vote Democratic. With the exception of Florida, Arkansas remains the last Southern state where the Democrats stand a chance. In 2000, Bush won it by 51 percent to 46 percent; the latest poll this year puts the parties even, each at 48 percent.

With six electoral votes at stake in such a close race, you would think this would make it a much-sought-after prize. Other states with fewer votes -- Nevada, New Mexico, New Hampshire -- are being showered with visits and bombarded with ads. But to the dismay of local Democrats, Kerry has not been here since May. Television ads are few and far between; yard signs and badges are even scarcer. Meanwhile Republican field officers have gone to Colorado, where Kerry is making a strong challenge.

"Arkansas has been devalued," said one Democrat insider. "I think they've given up on the South, and that means we're carrying the South on our backs."

But neither side has pulled out entirely. The Republicans remain a presence with automated phone calls, some ads and local volunteers. The Democrats have several field officers from out of town. "It's man vs. machine," said outreach organizer Shelton. In one of the many states where early voting has begun, the scene from the Dunbar community center last week suggested that it was human endeavor that was winning through. Old, black women in church hats were ferried to the center two or three at a time; they trooped in and emerged with stickers on their jackets announcing "I've voted."

As is the case in the rest of the country, most of those who have voted early are in heavily Democratic areas. "We're dominating the ground game," said Shelton. "And that's where it's going to count."

Gary Younge

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