NEW YORK — Like an ominous cloud threatening to rain out the Democrats' middle-of-the-road strategy for recapturing the White House, black voters remain largely unimpressed and only halfheartedly committed to likely presidential nominee Bill Clinton.
Clinton, locked in a tight three-way race with President Bush and independent Ross Perot, has sought to reassure white voters that he would not go too far in courting any voting bloc, including blacks, who have historically been among the Democrats' most loyal supporters. But the electoral arithmetic in the South, in California and in many of the industrial states of the Midwest and Northeast make it difficult for Clinton and his new running mate, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr., to win without a heavy black turnout.
So far, although not swinging massively to Bush or Perot, black leaders are expressing reservations. And if current opinion surveys are accurate, black voters are not showing their customary levels of enthusiasm for the national Democratic ticket either.
A recent Los Angeles Times Poll, for example, showed that a third of all black voters were undecided and less than half said they will vote for Clinton. Another survey, issued last week by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-run think tank in Washington, also found nearly one in three respondents undecided and only 42% committed to Clinton.
By contrast, at this point four years ago, a Gallup Poll found nearly three out of four black voters committed to Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, the Democratic nominee. In November, Dukakis lost to Bush but garnered 86% of black voters, who turned out in large numbers.
On Sunday, at an emotion-charged rally for the Rev. Jesse Jackson at Harlem's Apollo Theater, New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo added his voice to those warning that Clinton--in an effort to woo white voters who have defected from Democratic ranks--must not back away from the party's long-established commitment to social justice and greater opportunities for blacks.
Jackson is properly concerned that the Clinton campaign might calculate according to some "strange kind of arithmetic" in which "you decide if you move away from some people you gain other people," Cuomo said.
"I don't want addition by subtraction," Cuomo said in voicing solidarity with the Jackson message. "I don't want multiplication by division."
Similarly, Kansas City Mayor Emmanuel Cleaver, after holding out for a time, has endorsed Clinton--but with reservations. "I think that he's got to make up his mind whether he is going to run this race as George Bush has done in the past, which is to use race as a means of attracting extremely conservative whites, or whether he is going to try to do something that we've not seen in the last decade and a half--a President that actually speaks morally from the White House about the issue of race," he said.
Most conspicuously of all, Jackson himself endorsed the Democratic ticket on Saturday, but like Cleaver, he made it clear that he wants a stronger commitment from Clinton on the issues most important to the black community.
The danger for Clinton is not that black voters will abandon their traditional loyalty to the Democrats on a wholesale basis. Though some are flirting with Perot, all the polls show the Democratic ticket getting far more black votes than either of the other contenders.
The issue, however, is the size of the turnout. Both in the South and in many Northern and Western states, the Democrats need heavy black turnouts to help offset the appeal of Bush and Perot in suburbia and other predominantly white areas.
And the size of the turnout is in doubt.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said: "The Democratic Party, in its attempts to get to the White House, and to have to walk this tightrope of not looking too black, too female, too urban, will find that the turnout will not be the kind of turnout--as I look at it today--that may ensure the kind of victory that is anticipated."
An analysis of voting registration records in 17 key states with large black populations--California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and nine Dixie states--suggests diminished political activity by blacks in 1992 compared to their involvement in 1984 and 1988, according to Sonia Jarvis, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Voter Participation, a Washington-based nonpartisan organization that tracks black voting trends.
In the two previous presidential election years, when Jackson himself was a candidate, black voters rushed to the polls in large numbers. When Jackson opted not to run this year and Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder abandoned his campaign before the first primary election, blacks were left without a racial reason to vote in the primaries.
Many blacks voters expressed displeasure with the all-white field of candidates by refusing to go to the polls, Jarvis says.