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Blackwell vs. Strickland -- Part II: Coup de Grace

By Adam Schaeffer

We saw why Strickland is more vulnerable than Blackwell due to the interaction of ideology, Party, and turnout. If this were the end of consequential differences between the candidates, however, one would be forced to call the election a toss-up, easily won by stumbles or brilliance in either campaign.

Unfortunately for Strickland, Blackwell is a black man who is outspoken in support of school choice and traditional family values--issues that speak powerfully to a large number of African American voters. These issues, especially coming from a black candidate, will cause an unusual number to vote Republican and keep many Democrats at home. The play of race in this election will transform a toss-up into almost certain victory for Blackwell.


BLACK OPINION

The African American community is not as homogeneous or as liberal as the voting record might suggest. Historical ties and the legacy of the Civil Rights battles in both Parties of course play a huge role, but black voters are relatively conservative on many issues, and becoming more so.

56 percent of African Americans consider themselves to be born-again or evangelical Christians. 57 percent of African Americans take the most restrictive stances on abortion--only in the case of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother; just to save the life of the mother; or under no circumstances whatsoever. A complete ban on abortions under all circumstances is supported by 15 percent of African Americans.[1] And 46 percent of African Americans are against gay marriage and civil unions.

Even on fiscal issues, African Americans are not as left wing as the Democratic Party would have you believe. When asked what would do the most to provide African Americans with more jobs, 36 percent chose tax breaks for businesses over more government programs.[2] 37 percent of African Americans chose "I see myself more as part of the middle class and am looking for political candidates who share my beliefs on issues such as reducing taxes and spending and strengthening moral values," over working class and government solutions.[3] And support for school vouchers ranges from around 50 percent to almost 80 percent, depending on how bad local schools are and whether or not the respondents are parents.

Abortion, gay marriage, vouchers, and religion are all visceral, important issues on which 46 percent or more of black voters agree with Blackwell. And even on fiscal matters, Blackwell would find support from around 35 percent to 40 percent of the black community. But the issue of black public opinion is not as simple as the polls might suggest. All polls are inherently imperfect, but the interplay of race, government policy, and political principles makes for additional complications.

RACE MATTERS

What conservative principles mean when many black voters hear them depends on who is promoting those principles. Conservative principles were used from before the Civil Rights era on by honest conservatives as well as racists looking for reasonable cover. For some, states rights became code for perpetuating segregation and discrimination; self-reliance code for abandonment. It's no surprise that African Americans interpret conservative statements differently when attributed to a white speaker or a black speaker.

More interesting, however, is that the race of a speaker has a larger impact on the way African Americans interpret a political statement than either Party or ideology. A political science experiment, for instance, found that a black Republican source is much more likely than a white Democratic source to elicit agreement with the statement, "African Americans must stop making excuses and rely much more on themselves to get ahead in society."[4] What is heard as abandonment and lack of concern when attributed to a white politician is heard as a message of self-reliance and confidence in African Americans when attributed to a black politician. Because of his race, Blackwell's conservative message is much less likely to be misinterpreted and more likely to resonate with the significant portion of black voters who agree with him on the issues.

THE BLACK ELECTORATE

Race matters in the most direct way as well--a statewide Democratic victory in Ohio requires historical patterns in the black vote to hold. In 2004 the black vote in Ohio was estimated at 17 percent of the electorate, and it often goes around 9 to 1 against Republicans nationwide. But President Bush increased his percentage of the black vote in Ohio seven points to 16 percent in 2004, and Blackwell claims upwards of 40 percent of the African American vote in his statewide elections. Fighting in a Republican state against a tough opponent, Strickland cannot win without a strong turnout from black Democratic voters.

Blackwell could easily claim 40 percent of the black vote in the race for governor. There is even a close precedent from a white Republican who actively sought the black vote and had credibility on an important issue. Then-governor Tommy Thompson spearheaded the fight for vouchers in Milwaukee, working closely with black leaders and speaking regularly to black parents. In his 1994 reelection, the first after the voucher battle, Thompson received about 37 percent of the vote in the five Milwaukee aldermanic districts represented by African-Americans.[5] This stunning support from inner-city, otherwise Democratic blacks stayed high through the next election--in 1998 he received 32 percent of the vote from the inner-city Milwaukee wards that were the focus of the school choice effort.[6]

White, conservative Republicans can and have made significant inroads with African Americans, and Blackwell is well positioned to claim 40 percent or more of their vote this November. Many pundits have speculated on the impact that Blackwell and other high-profile African American candidates might have on race and Party politics this year. But few have made precise predictions about the numbers to which each election will come down. I looked at what the speculation really means for Blackwell v Strickland--and it doesn't look good for Democrats.


Ohio's black vote in 2004 came in at just over 900,000 votes out of about 5.5 million according to Census Bureau estimates. Turnout was unusually high in this vital presidential swing state, and may drop as much as 20 percent for the midterm election this November. Research that I've conducted on the turnout effects of black-targeted Republican advertising suggests that Party competition for the black vote can seriously decrease black Democratic turnout--a phenomenon that is perhaps largely responsible for much of the Republican gain in vote percentage where a candidate puts in the effort.


In order to give a conservative estimate of a Blackwell-induced change in black voting patterns, I reduced the 2004 Census Bureau estimates of the black vote by 20 percent overall--giving Blackwell fewer votes for any given shift and recognizing that many black Democrats will stay home rather than switch the Party they vote for. What happens when a 90 percent/ten percent Democratic vote becomes a conservative 70 percent to 30 percent? Strickland would lose 6 percent of the vote, and Blackwell would gain 2 percent--an 8 percent swing for Blackwell. If Blackwell takes in 40 percent of the black vote, the higher end of the predictions, Strickland's deficit is 11 percent.

Blackwell can seize a large portion of the black vote and demobilize the black Democratic base, many of whom will be reluctant to turn out for a conservative white Democrat and vote against a black candidate. Strickland must make up an additional 10 percent of the vote from the rest of the electorate if Blackwell matches the 37 percent of the black vote that Tommy Thompson received in Wisconsin. In the face of strong turnout from the Republican base and potential problems with the Democratic activist core, Strickland needs a miracle.

The conclusion is obvious. Absent a solid and lopsidedly Democratic turnout from black voters statewide, Strickland's effort is lost before the first engagement. Blackwell has won the race for governor half a year in advance of his election . . . although I expect no one will stop campaigning.

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[1] Survey by Black America's Political Action Committee and Public Opinion Strategies, June 20-June 30, 2002. Retrieved May 12, 2006 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. .
[2] Survey by BET and BET/CBS News, July 6-July 15, 2004. Retrieved May 12, 2006 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. .
[3] Survey by NBC News, Wall Street Journal and Hart and Teeter Research Companies, March 2-March 5, 2000. Retrieved May 12, 2006 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. .
[4] Kuklinski, James H.; Hurley Norman L. "On Hearing and Interpreting Political Messages: A Cautionary Tale of Citizen Cue-Taking," The Journal of Politics, Vol. 56, No. 3. (Aug., 1994), p735.
[5] Leonard Sykes Jr., "Black voters not taking election lightly," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sept. 4, 2002.
[6] Rick Wiley, Wisconsin Republican Party, precinct data voting analysis.
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Adam B. Schaeffer is a Cincinnati native.

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