The Democratic Party has a problem. Republicans are riding high with a popular president, and GOP majorities control both houses of Congress. And after a trouncing in last November’s elections, the Democrats’ expectations for a 2004 comeback have been put in doubt by data showing that the party is losing the loyalty of its most faithful group of supporters—African Americans.
One out of seven African Americans who self-identified as Democrats in 2000 changed their political affiliation in 2002, according to the National Opinion Poll conducted last September and October by the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. The 2002 poll found that 63% of African American adults identified themselves as Democrats compared to 74% in 2000. Where has their allegiance gone? In 2000, only 4% of African Americans identified themselves as Republicans, but 10% did in 2002. Moreover, those who identified themselves as Independents rose from 20% in 2000 to 24% in 2002.
The Republican agenda is not an attractive option for most African Americans, and nine out of 10 who vote still cast ballots for the Democratic Party. In fact, voters who feel a strong bond with any political party are more likely to go to the polls than those who don’t. “When African Americans are mad at the Democrats, they don’t vote Republican. They don’t vote,” says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center.
During the midterm elections last November, lukewarm black turnout led to several Democratic defeats, especially in the South and Midwest.
The upcoming political battle could be for the allegiance of the young. The 2002 Joint Center poll found 34% of African Americans between 18 and 25 identify themselves as Independents. Consequently, the Democrats have a long-term problem because younger African Americans don’t have strong partisanship and are therefore less likely to vote, according to Bositis.
Republicans are not trying to win over African American voters, asserts Cornell Belcher, president of brilliant corners Research & Strategies, a Washington, D.C., research firm that conducts polls for the Democratic National Committee. “African Americans are being used by the Republicans to persuade suburban white women that Republicans aren’t an extremist party and to make whites comfortable with Republicans on race issues,” says Belcher. He contends that 56% of African Americans aged 26 to 35 still self-identify as Democrats, and that the Democrats have the advantage with this group on issues like health care, minimum wage, police profiling, and affirmative action in education.
African Americans aged 26 to 35 who self-identified as Republicans in the poll increased from 4% in 1999 to 15% in 2002. Pamela Mantis, deputy press secretary for outreach at the Republican National Committee, says the GOP thinks this 11-point gain is very significant. Mantis cites a June 2002 report by Black America’s Political Action Committee, a fund-raising organization for conservative African American political candidates, which claims that 40% of African Americans stated that the Democratic Party takes them for granted. She assesses that the post-civil-rights generation of young blacks is more independent thinking and therefore