Study: Black Vote Crucial For Dems In Mid-Term Elections

On the eve of midterm elections, reports show that the African-American vote is pivotal to the outcome for Democrats. President Obama has been reaching out this group of voters who often feel neglected. Host Michel Martin speaks with David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of The Root.com.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Just ahead, in our weekly Faith Matters conversation, we'll talk about faith, race and money. We'll tell you about a new CNN documentary that explores the very interesting question of whether many African-Americans' faith perspective influenced their attitudes about personal finance and not in a good way.

But first, it's time for our political chat. We're talking again about the midterm elections, and we've been looking at how different groups are poised to have an effect or not.

Previously, we talked about Latino voters and the youth vote. Today, we're looking at African-American voters. Democrats are pushing African-Americans to get out and vote, and nobody is working harder than the community-organizer-in-chief.

President Obama has been crisscrossing the country, hosting social networking forums, town hall meetings, and today he's due to meet with a group of African-American newspaper columnists.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Now, that's a research institution that focuses on African-American leaders and the electorate; and Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of theroot.com. That's a daily online magazine that provides news from a variety of black perspectives. Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVID BOSITIS (Senior Political Analyst, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies): Thank you.

Mr. JOEL DREYFUSS (Managing Editor, TheRoot.com): You're welcome.

MARTIN: Now David, historically, African-Americans have turned out to vote at lower rates than whites in the midterm elections. And so the question becomes: Is that what Democrats are worried about, that the historical pattern will hold?

Mr. BOSITIS: There is a general historical pattern where that has been the case, but there have been exceptions to the historical pattern. In 1986, two years after the Reverend Jesse Jackson's first campaign for president, Democrats realized that African-Americans could be mobilized if the proper effort was put into it. And that year, the Democrats took back the Senate, and they picked up a lot of other offices along the way.

In 1998, there was a president who was extremely popular with African-Americans, and congressional Republicans were viciously attacking him at that time. Clinton would be impeached maybe six weeks after the election. And usually, if a president serves two terms, his party loses a bunch of seats in the sixth year.

And for the first time in about 50 years, the Democrats, with a Democratic president in his sixth year, actually picked up five seats in the House of Representatives. So it broke a significant historical pattern.

Shortly thereafter, the impeachment effort collapsed, basically because the other Democrats realized that black voters would not tolerate Bill Clinton being removed from office.

MARTIN: And so you feel that that's an apt parallel to the current midterm, even though we're two years into this term or halfway through, not six years in?

Mr. BOSITIS: Yes.

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. BOSITIS: Because there's a president who happens to be African-American, who is wildly popular with African-Americans, who is under attack from congressional Republicans.

And there's one other point that I left out that is the African-American population is not a national population. It's located in about 22 states and about a quarter of the congressional districts.

And in different midterm cycles, it may be more or fewer competitive elections where African-Americans live.

MARTIN: Joel, I'd like to hear your perspective on how these outreach efforts are being made. I mean, the president yesterday participated in a town hall meeting of primarily, you know, younger voters. It was co-hosted by MTV and Black Entertainment Television, BET, which are very youth-oriented.

It was not exclusively African-American, but there was a big effort to include reporters, correspondents, bloggers from the African-American community. And that actually in itself was controversial because some of the people who were invited were people who are not considered, you know, serious journalists or people from kind of entertainment outlets and so forth.

So The Root did have a correspondent there. So talk to me about these outreach efforts so far.

Mr. DREYFUSS: Well, you know, it's interesting. I would have to say it is sudden because we've been banging our heads against the wall with the White House, trying to get in to talk to people, to have access to government officials for direct interviews, and it's not been an easy process. And in fact, the guy who was in charge of dealing with black media left the White House recently. So there was a vacuum there.

But I'd say in the last couple of weeks, there's been a real all-out effort to talk to black media. We got invited to this White House summit with new media people. That was basically off the record, but the president came around and shook hands with everybody.

So the effort to mobilize, I mean, has to start with ideas. So I think you have a parallel here where here's a president who's saying to people the programs we've put into place are under threat. We need you to come out and protect this. This affects not just my presidency but, you know, obviously my ability to carry out programs that are going to benefit you.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having the latest in a series of conversations about the midterm elections, and we've been taking a close look at how different groups are expected to affect the midterm elections or not.

In previous conversations, we've talked about the Latino vote and the youth vote. Today, we're focusing on the African-American vote with Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of theroot.com; and David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and that's a research institution that focuses on issues of particular interest to African-Americans.

You know, to the point that you were making, Joel, there were a couple points that you made I wanted to pick up on. One is the idea that the Democrats are focusing on the idea that, you know, there's a problem here, there's a threat here, and you need to respond to the threat. And I just want to play an ad that's now airing on black radio stations, featuring the civil rights leader the Reverend Joseph Lowery.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

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Reverend JOSEPH LOWERY: More than a half-century ago, I marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to help secure our sacred right to vote. In those days, the path to progress was a struggle, and it was young people who led the challenge. We were beaten, bitten, and we never gave up the fight for justice. Today that fight continues, and the struggle is more critical than ever.

When young people to the streets, we elected our first African-American president...

MARTIN: Joel, you made the point that this White House, despite the fact that it's, you know, it's led by an African-American, this historic, you know, leader, has not been especially welcoming to people, to the black media per se. It hasn't gone out of its way, for example.

And there are those who argue that that's a broader metaphor, that they haven't necessarily gone out of their way to reach out to and to stroke this constituency throughout the first two years.

And so the question I would have for you is: Do you think that's true and if you think that there is always the too-little-too-late problem? Do you think that that's, perhaps these efforts are not going to come in time?

Mr. DREYFUSS: Well, I think that there's a dilemma because on the one hand, there are people who have been very vocal in saying, you know, Obama has ignored us, he hasn't paid attention, he hasn't embraced the black agenda and all those things. And you have the Tavis Smileys, you know, the people like that making such charges. And on the other hand...

MARTIN: Tavis Smiley, for those who don't know, is obviously a former NPR host, is a radio host and a television personality who's been fairly critical, quite critical...

Mr. DREYFUSS: I think quite critical, had a conference that was basically a bash on the president in Chicago earlier this year. But what the White House people like to point is the approval rating in the black community, and it's stayed very high. It's in the 90, you know, percent range most of the time, despite all the ups and downs the president's gone through.

So the fact is that he's carried out an agenda that has a lot of benefits for African-Americans.

MARTIN: David, what do you think? Do you think that the critique by some high-profile figures like Tavis Smiley has an effect?

Mr. BOSITIS: Not really, no. I think that, first of all, you have to place this in context. The Republican Party's base, as well as the base of its leadership, consists of Southern white conservatives.

You just had the ad with the Reverend Joseph Lowery. The people who the Reverend Joseph Lowery were talking about beating him and biting him were Southern white conservatives.

So the Republican Party does represent, in some ways, a threat to African-Americans. But as Joel said, the Obama administration has promoted a large number of initiatives - the $2 billion for historically black colleges, unemployment. The provisions in the stimulus bill, for example, propped up state and local governments.

MARTIN: No, I get that, but to Joel's point is the White House argument is -and I'm not saying you're making it for them - but the White House argument is that these policies benefit these communities.

But there's a difference between doing the work and getting credit for it, as we've seen in, for example, a recent local election in Washington, D.C., where, you know, you might do the work, but people don't necessarily give you credit for it. So the question is, will African-American voters give this administration credit for doing the work that redounds to their benefit, even if they don't talk about how it redounds to their benefit?

Mr. BOSITIS: Yes, I think quite definitely that they will.

MARTIN: To your point, another survey, we referenced the report that you did earlier, saying that African-American participation in November may be higher than in many past midterms and also another survey conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University published today, found that 80 percent of black Democrats are as interested or more interested in the midterms than they were in the 2008 presidential election, when their interest helped propel Barack Obama to the White House.

So final thought from each of you. David, if you could just maybe pick one race that you think would be a good measure of where African-American influence is felt and so we can sort of test the theory of whether African-Americans are as interested as the research indicates they are.

Mr. BOSITIS: In terms of President Obama, I'm sure one race he is very interested in is the race to replace him, his seat in the Senate in Illinois. If there's a big black turnout in Illinois, I think that the Democrats will hold that seat, and that certainly would be a strong indication that black voters are motivated for this election.

MARTIN: Joel, final thought from you?

Mr. DREYFUSS: I think it's going to be interesting to see this transition of President Obama appealing directly to African-Americans and saying, you know, I've done a lot for you or for us - if he goes that far - and therefore, I deserve that support.

I think African-Americans do see that he's doing the right thing as far as they're concerned, and there is a great fear of a Republican take-back, especially when they're talking about rolling back so many of the laws that bring benefits to the African-American community.

MARTIN: Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of theroot.com. It's a daily online publication that provides news from a variety of African-American perspectives. He joined us from our bureau in New York.

And here with me in our Washington, D.C., studio, David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. DREYFUSS: You're welcome.

Mr. BOSITIS: Thank you.

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