More Black Voters Signing on as Independents
TONY COX, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox.
NPR's Crossing the Divide series continues now as Juan Williams and his guests on Political Corner look at independent parties.
JUAN WILLIAMS: Welcome to Political Corner. Today, we're joined by Robert Traynham, deputy staff director, communications director for the Senate Republican Conference. Robert is a master of Republican politics on Capitol Hill. Also with us, Donna Brazile - Democratic political strategist, the author of "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics." Donna was Al Gore's campaign manager in the 2000 presidential campaign.
Robert, Donna, thank you for joining us today.
Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democratic Political Strategist; Author, "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics"): Thank you, Juan. Nice to be here.
Mr. ROBERT TRAYNHAM (Deputy Staff Director and Communications Director, Senate Republican Conference): Thank you.
WILLIAMS: Today, we want to take a look at the growing number of black Americans who identify themselves as independent voters. By that I mean they don't identify as Democrats or Republicans, but independents. At the moment, it's about a third of younger black people who call themselves independent. Donna Brazile, when did this start, and why is it happening?
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, Juan, I saw this trend back in the 1980s, soon after Reverend Jackson's two historic bids. We had a - we saw in the data that most young African-Americans identified with being independent, not Democrats or Republicans. And, you know, at the time when we were trying to register new voters and get more young people involved in politics, many of them preferred not to be aligned with the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. They wanted to declare their independence.
And what we've seen over the last two decades is a national trend right now. The largest political party in America today is not the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. It's independents. People who are not aligned who really have not felt comfortable, you know, in either major political party. So this is a growing trend in American politics, and I think both political parties should be on notice that they're losing their appeal to young people.
WILLIAMS: Robert Traynham, let me read you some numbers. It says here that while 80 percent of African-Americans are still identified with the Democratic Party, within that number, 65 percent are strong Democrats. But about 14.6 percent to be exact say they are political independents who lean towards the Democrats, but really feel that they are political independents.
And then, of course, if you look for the people who are registered as being political independents and you go under the age of 35, again, you come to about a third of them. And, in fact, only about 40 percent of those 18 to 25 say they identify as something of an independent. What's it mean to you as a Republican - as a black Republican, Robert?
Mr. TRAYNHAM: You know, it's interesting. Well, I agree with Donna and what she said a few moments ago in terms of a large trend starting in the 80s. What we saw - actually over the last four or five election cycles - is the intensity of individuals either saying, I'm a strong Republican or I'm a strong Democrat. But a very large majority of folks are saying that I'm an independent. And it's interesting, because what we have to do now as a political strategist is we have to talk to that large center, if you will, particularly of African-Americans that are saying, you know what? I may lean a little bit more Democrat or I may lean a little bit more Republican, but I'm still an independent. We saw this in '94. We saw this in '96. We saw it in '98. And we're seeing it again, obviously, in the '06 and '08 cycles.
What this specifically means, Juan, is that with the advent of blogs and podcasting and 24-hour news cycles, is that more and more black Americans are getting their political news and clearly making up their own minds in terms of what they think is relevant to them. They're not listening to the Jesse Jacksons of the world or the Al Sharptons or the Colin Powells of the world or the Conde Rices. They're listening to themselves. And they're trying to make up their own mind in terms of what's important to them.
WILLIAMS: Robert, let me ask you a question. Here are three names, and tell me if you think these people are Democrats or independents - Harold Ford, Cory Booker, Artur Davis.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: I think Harold Ford is probably in a mold of a conservative Democrat/independent. I think the other two individuals are a little bit more -they're certainly Democrats, or they certainly lean a little bit more liberal.
Ms. BRAZILE: Well, and you know - I mean, look. They're not traditional Democrats. They're not old school Democrats. I should put it that way. They represent a new generation of Democrats that clearly believe that what we gain in the 1960s should be respected. But they also believe, like Barack Obama, that it's time for us to take this struggle to the next level. But, you know, as you look down the road at African-American politics, and because they take independent positions, it has placed them in a position of being able to run statewide.
Artur Davis, the congressman from the 7th District of Alabama, considered running against Jeff Sessions of Alabama. He declined, but now the folks down in Alabama, you know, are talking about him running for governor in three years when the current governor is no longer in office. So these individuals are able to position themselves not as black candidates, not as Democrats, but as future leaders, future statewide leaders. That's why Harold Ford had an opportunity to run statewide. And one day, Cory Booker will be looked upon to run when Mr. Lautenberg decides to retire, or Mr. Corzine or Mr. Menendez. That's the key to become a statewide leader.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Well, if I can pick up on that, it's not even just being a statewide leader. It's being relevant and credible - not only within the black community, but also in the statewide community to pick up on what Donna said.
I mean, if you, look - if you believe in school choice or if you believe in safe base or if you believe in, you know, whatever the issue might be, if it's not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue but if it's a reformed issue - if it's an issue that really resonates with your constituency - that's when you become relevant. And that's when you become - if I can be so bold to say this -that's when you really become a player.
And you'll be - you have crossover appeal, if you will. And I think that's what you see with a lot of independents today that are - whether it be a Ross Perot or Jesse Ventura or, you know, a Mayor Williams out in Youngstown, Ohio - is you become really, really relevant because you're taking issues that really resonate with your constituency.
WILLIAMS: Robert Traynham is deputy staff director, communications director for the Senate Republican Conference, and, of course, a key strategist on Capitol Hill - and Donna Brazile, Democratic political strategist and the author of "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics."
Robert, Donna, thanks for joining us on Political Corner.
Ms. BRAZILE: Thank you, Juan.
Mr. TRAYNHAM: Thank you.
COX: Again, that was NPR's Juan Williams. He joins us every Thursday with Political Corner, recapping African-American affairs on Capitol Hill.
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