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CAMPAIGN 2000

For Many Blacks, Election Isn't on Radar

Campaign: Both parties court less-than-enthusiastic constituency, long loyally Democratic, in tossup states.

October 17, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — Thelma French has a nightmare, which goes like this: All across Louisiana, indeed all across America, millions of black voters stay home on election day, lulled by good times and convinced they have little stake in the presidential election.

It is French's nightmare--but it should make Al Gore toss and turn. If the race stays close, black turnout could be crucial in deciding whether Gore or George W. Bush is elected on Nov. 7.

There is no doubt that Vice President Gore will win the majority of black voters. African Americans are the Democratic Party's most loyal constituents, routinely delivering 80% or more of their votes to the party's presidential candidates.

But with just three weeks to go in a seesaw contest, Gore is still trying to summon the enthusiastic backing that President Clinton has long enjoyed among African Americans.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 18, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Black voters--A story Tuesday on the African American vote misstated get-out-the-vote efforts by New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial. A fleet of yellow school buses will ferry campaign workers on election day to neighborhoods to spur black turnout. But the buses will not transport voters to the polls, which is illegal in Louisiana.

Here in New Orleans, few seem interested when French tries to talk politics with other black women at Trendsetters, her favorite beauty shop in the middle-class Gentilly neighborhood. Crime is down and black unemployment stands at a record low, robbing the election of much of its urgency.

"The whole presidential thing just has not been on the radar," said French, a deputy to Democratic Mayor Marc Morial. "It just shows how hard we have to work."

Nationally, African Americans make up about 12% of the voting age population. But the distribution is hardly uniform. There are substantial African American populations in several of the states that will likely decide this election--among them Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Louisiana--and that could give black voters an outsize influence come November. As a result, the African American community is being courted like never before.

Just last week, the Republican Party launched its biggest minority ad campaign ever, budgeting more than $1 million for commercials on black radio stations across the country. "The more we get the message out, the more likely we think people will become excited," said Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the Republican outreach effort.

Democrats 'Getting Our Troops Out There'

Democrats, meanwhile, have placed specially designated field workers in more than a dozen states, part of an unprecedented effort targeting black voters with phone calls, mailings, door-to-door visits and advertisements taped by a range of celebrities, including actor Will Smith, singer Stevie Wonder and author Maya Angelou.

"We believe this will be won on the ground," said Fred Humphries, political director of the Democratic Party. "So we're getting our troops out there."

Some, however, fret the party has taken too long to muster its forces, concentrating instead on a relatively narrow slice of undecided voters, mostly white suburbanites.

"People want to see more," said one Democrat who is prominent in the African American community and who wished to stay unnamed to avoid antagonizing the vice president. "They want to see more on the ground, they want to see more candidate time, they want to see more message focus . . . like on health care: If you don't have health care, you're not worried about a patients' bill of rights."

But Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager and a veteran organizer in the African American community, said the vice president "enters the final weeks of the campaign in good shape" among black voters. "We'll have as much ammunition and as much information as we need out there," she vowed.

Gore's hopes may be riding on it. The Bush campaign is counting on just 10% to 15% of the black vote, about what Bob Dole managed in 1996 and what Bush's father polled in 1988, the recent high-water marks for Republican presidential nominees.

Gore, on the other hand, will almost surely need a big black turnout to help offset Bush's expected edge among white voters; the last Democrat to carry the white vote was Lyndon B. Johnson, back in 1964.

It was that election that solidified the black exodus from the GOP, long the party of abolition and Abraham Lincoln. Although the shift toward Democrats began in the 1930s, during the New Deal, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower still managed to win nearly 40% of the black vote as late as 1956. Four years later, Republican Richard Nixon was supported by nearly one in three black voters against Democrat John F. Kennedy.

But four years after that, Johnson won a stunning 94% of the African American vote after signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The GOP and its candidates have struggled for black support ever since--few working harder than Texas Gov. Bush, who has put forth more effort than any Republican nominee in well over a generation.

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