Election 2008

Presidential Candidates Target Black Music Festival

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Democratic Presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama, from Illinois, and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton are both making appearances at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. Political commentator Faye Anderson and pollster Ron Lester discuss whether the black vote is up for grabs in the 2008 presidential race.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, our summer book series: a fresh new take on immigrant life in America. It's about a young Korean American struggle to figure out where she belongs.

But first - Beyonce, The O'Jays, Obama? Presidential hopeful and Illinois Senator Barack Obama took the stage last night at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): People are trying in an economy in which people work one job, two jobs, three jobs and can't seem to get ahead. Don't know how they're going to save for their child's college education. Don't know how they're going to pay for retirement. (Unintelligible) wants the jobs move over to China or Mexico, and have lost their jobs, their health care, their pension care. They compete with their teenage kids for jobs in local fast-food places. People have had enough of all that.

MARTIN: So, no, he wasn't there to sing. And his Democratic rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, is also scheduled to make an appearance at the festival today. What does it all mean? Will the black vote be up for grabs in the 2008 presidential race?

With us now to talk about that is Faye Anderson. She is a political commentator and a blogger who writes frequently about black voter issues. She joins us on the phone from New York. And here in the studio is Democratic pollster Ron Lester. Welcome to the program, all.

Mr. RON LESTER (Democratic Pollster): Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Hi, Faye. Are you there?

Ms. FAYE ANDERSON (Political Commentator; Blogger): Yes, I'm here.

MARTIN: Okay, great. So Ron, let's start with you. It's been repeated so often that it's become a cliche, but I still want to pin down the facts. The theory is that since the New Deal era, African-Americans have been so heavily oriented toward the Democratic Party that nobody really fights for their votes. The Republicans either ignore them or use them as a scapegoat. The Democrats take them for granted. True or not true?

Mr. LESTER: Well that may have been true at some point in our history but certainly not this year. There is a spirited competition going on for the African-American vote and it's because of the calendar in the 2008 presidential election.

On January 29th of 2008 you'll have two states, South Carolina, that will be approximately 50 percent African-American in the composition of the Democratic primary, and Florida, which will be about 25 percent. And these two states will be the second and third states after Iowa and New Hampshire. And I think they've put Nevada in there this year so they'll be the fourth and fifth states.

But a lot of people believe that the process may actually be over after these five states, two of which have a very large African-American population, particularly South Carolina, which will be largely half African-American.

Then, a week after South Carolina and Florida, on February 5th, you have what people call Super Duper Tuesday, some people call it Fat Tuesday, but you have 13 states, several of them in the South, several with huge black populations - Maryland, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama.

So therefore all of the candidates will have to be very competitive with African-Americans this year. And we see it early. I mean, we see that there's been attendance at many of the events and a lot of interest in the African-American vote this year.

MARTIN: So Faye, Ron says it's the calendar. I thought the theory was that it was the candidates; you have Clinton and Obama in particular who are deemed to have particular interest, a particular appeal to African-Americans. What do you - do you buy that it's the calendar, not necessarily the candidates, Faye?

Ms. ANDERSON: Well, for the Democratic race it's certainly the calendar. But for the Republican race it would be the candidate just in terms of the role of black voters in - for Republicans. What Republicans typically do with their black outreach is try to convince swing voters that they are not their father's or grandfather's Republican Party.

So they use black voters to present themselves as more moderate. So in that respect, black voters count for both Democrats as well as Republicans.

MARTIN: So Faye, do you think - and I should mention that Faye is a former Republican activist. She is now an independent. Do you feel that Republicans will also be contesting for the African-American vote? Because it's been - I think that the theory, the corollary theory on the Republican side is that they've been more interested in the Latino vote because that has been perceived as a vote that's more easily contested for.

Ms. ANDERSON: Republicans will give the appearance of contesting for African-American vote because they've remained the Republican Party's Achilles' heel. Latino voters cannot help them erase - deal with their problems. So they will give as they have given in every election since '68, they will give the appearance of reaching out to black voters. But again the real target are white swing voters.

MARTIN: Ron Lester, besides Clinton and Obama, are there other candidates who are making these kinds of serious efforts to compete for the black vote?

Mr. LESTER: Well, certainly John Edwards. John Edwards won the African-American vote in the South Carolina primary in 2002. As a matter of fact, he dominated. And he seems to have a pretty good feel for African-American voters. He speaks a language that they understand when he talks about the two Americas, and he talks about his background as a son of a mill worker. So he's got a message there and he's got an appeal.

And we even saw Senator Biden attend the council of 100 African-American Men Conference in Denver about two weeks ago. He spent a couple of days there. I understand he did very well. He was very well received. Senator Dodd has done quite a bit of outreach. He attended several events particularly in the Northeast where he's well known - Connecticut, New York, et cetera.

So I think we're going to have a very spirited competition. I think we have a very rich field in terms of candidates in the Democratic primary. We have candidates who have been around a long time, who have played major roles in Congress. Senator Biden for foreign policy experience, Senator Dodd on the Banking Committee. We have Senator Obama who is rock star. We have Senator Clinton. So we have a very rich field of candidates.

MARTIN: Speaking of a rich field, Obama recently set records for fundraising, reporting more than $30 million in donations for the second quarter. He claims a quarter million individual donors throughout the campaign. Is there any way of knowing how much of that monetary support is coming from the African-American community, Ron?

Mr. LESTER: Well, there is. I would venture to say, without the data right in front of me, that a significant part of it is - there was a fundraising event in D.C. for Senator Obama on June 27th that netted about $500,000. There was a series of events in New Jersey that were led by Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark. They did about two or three events up there and they raised approximately a million dollars.

So a significant portion of the money is raised by African-Americans, but you don't have an exact handle on that. But clearly African-Americans are playing a role raising money not only for Senator Obama but Senator Clinton. Bob Johnson, the former owner of BET and one of our most prominent businessmen in America, did a fundraiser at his home for Senator Clinton and raised over $250,000 the week before last. And several other African-Americans have done events for Senator Clinton.

So money is - more money is being raised among African-Americans and by African-Americans than ever before in this campaign.

MARTIN: Faye, let's talk about the general election. Some of the facts here are in dispute. But I think people pretty much agree that back in 2004, Republicans did have some success in getting some black support in some key states, particularly Ohio. And I think it's generally believed that the key to that was speaking out against gay marriage, or the anti-gay marriage referendum that were on the ballot in a couple of states.

First of all, do you buy that theory? And secondly, is there a similar issue now that could have the same affect for the GOP?

Ms. ANDERSON: Well, if I can respond, you're right. In Ohio, the black share - black support of Republicans about 16 percent but the nationwide total was really not that different. It's still hovered around 10 percent, which is what Republican presidential candidates get if they do absolutely nothing.

Looking ahead to next year's election, whether there's a similar wedge issue, I think illegal immigration could be that issue. The mainstream media narrative is that this issue divides the Republican Party. But, truth be told, illegal immigration cuts across party lines, race lines. Poll after poll shows that Americans are opposed to illegal immigration and amnesty, so that could be the sleeper issue for '08.

MARTIN: Ron Lester, do you agree with that, that that's a potential wedge issue into the black community that could offer some benefit for Republicans?

Mr. LESTER: Well, I think immigration - if you look at the polling data on immigration, the country is actually split right down the middle. In the South, in the Southwest where it's a big issue, even in the northeast, there are conservative businessmen who strongly support Ted Kennedy's immigration bill.

Their businesses could not function without immigrants, without a steady flow of immigrants. There are low-income white voters who are totally against immigration. So, you know, everybody has a different take on this issue. But I think the elephant in the room for the Republican Party is the war, and I think for Senator Domenici coming out yesterday, that's going to have a profound impact.

The war and the loss of popularity for President Bush regarding the war in the Republican Party has generally caused a meltdown in the Republican Party. I mean, the Republican Party is now weaker than it's ever been in our recent history. You can take a look at the dollars race. Democrats are outraising Republicans. Now, who would have thought that a couple of years ago, that we'd have the Democratic candidates outraising the Republicans. Senator Obama raises $31 million and Senator McCain raises $11 million; he raises almost three times as much. So there are some dynamics that are going on that bode well for the Democrat, whoever the Democratic candidate is in 2008.

MARTIN: But I wanted you take on Faye's point, which is there - I understand the importance of the war, and I thank you for bringing it up - but what about phase point about immigration being potentially a sleeper issue and a dividing point on the Democratic side?

Mr. LESTER: I don't immigration will be a lead issue. Again, the public is split on the issue so it's not going to be a wedge issue and neither party has an advantage on it. I mean, if we take a look at who supported the Kennedy bill, there were some conservative Republicans who supported that bill. If you take a look at who was against it, there were some very liberal Democrats that were against it.

So I don't think the issue by itself has the power to become a major issue, particularly since we have the war, we have an economic slowdown and a lot of other things going on that are probably more important in the minds of others.

MARTIN: Faye, final question to you. We have about a minute left. Talk to me about the war and how that cuts on the Democratic side. Do you think that the distinction that Senator Obama's trying to make with Senator Clinton, having always opposed the war as opposed to Senator Clinton's sort of more nuanced position, do you think that will offer benefits in the African-American community that might override her better name recognition and popularity? Faye?

Ms. ANDERSON: No. I think at this - perhaps during the primary season it will have an impact given who's active in the party. But I think in the general election, the fact that Senator Clinton came late to the party, as it were, in terms of opposition to Iraq, to the Iraq war, she probably would not be much different from the Republican candidate, whomever that is, in terms of coming late to the party.

MARTIN: Okay. Faye, thanks so much. I hope you'll come back and talk to us again.

Ms. ANDERSON: I hope you invite me.

MARTIN: Faye Anderson is a political commentator and blogger. Her blog is called Anderson@Large. She joined us on the phone for New York. And Ron Lester is a Democratic pollster. He joined us here in the studio. Thank you both so much for speaking with us today.

Mr. LESTER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And you come back and see us, too.

Mr. LESTER: Okay.

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