Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page story on Kerry and Gore seeking to mobilize black voters for the Democratic ticket. No doubt they are and for good reason. The more black voters that show up on election day, the better for John Kerry.
More controversial is the story’s assertion, based on a recent national poll of African-Americans by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, that Bush is generating much more support among blacks than he did in 2000.
Now it is true that the Joint Center’s poll has Bush’s support among blacks at 18 percent, double the 9 percent the Joint Center recorded in their 2000 poll. It is also far more than the support the 2000 exit poll found for Bush (8 percent) and the average support Republican presidential candidates in the last three elections (10 percent).
But how credible is their 18 percent figure? Not very, in my view. Or in the view of Cornell Belcher, a pollster who focuses on African-Americans, who, according to the Times story:
said his surveys in battleground states showed Mr. Bush in single digits. Nationally, Mr. Belcher said, he has found only 10 percent of blacks approve even “somewhat” of Mr. Bush’s job performance, while 89 percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction.
So who’s right? I think Belcher is. The overwhelming evidence from public polls is that Bush’s support among blacks is running very close to where it was in 2000 and not even in shouting distance of the Joint Center’s 18 percent figure. Consider these data, which I managed to ferret out from various polling sources:
1. A July poll of black RVs by BET/CBS News had Bush’s support at 10 percent.
2. Bush’s black support in the last week of WP/ABC tracking polls has been averaging 9 percent.
3. Bush’s average black support in the last four Pew polls has been 9 percent.
4. Bush’s average black support in the last week of national Zogby tracking polls has been 8 percent.
5. Bush’s support among black RVs averaged only 7 percent in three October Gallup polls.
Sounds like Bush can expect his black support in 2004 to closely resemble his black support in 2000.
Of course, defenders of the Joint Center poll might point out that, outside of the BET/CBS poll, it has a much larger sample size than the various subsamples averaged above. But larger sample size, by itself, doesn’t make the Joint Center estimate “better”. It merely means that, all else equal, the Joint Center estimate should have less random sampling error than any single estimate based on one of the national subsamples. But the various subsample estimates taken together–and, cumulatively, we’re talking about estimates based on thousands and thousands of black voters–should be relatively free of random sampling error and close to Bush’s true support level among blacks.
So the fact that all these various polls are finding Bush’s black support running in a very tight band between 7-10 percent is a sign that the Joint Center poll is off, not everbody else.
What could account for the Joint Center’s anomalous finding? Who knows, but one possibility is the way they asked the question:
“Suppose the 2004 Presidential election were being held today. Among the three major nominees, George W. Bush, John Kerry and Ralph Nader, who would you like to see win?”
This is, to say the least, a very strange way to ask a trial heat question. It doesn’t actually ask who the respondent is going to vote for, but rather who they “would like to see win” the election (possibly misheard by some respondents as simply who “would win” the election). The question also does not mention the partisan affiliation of the candidates so respondents do not receive the partisan cues of Democrat for Kerry (presumably less well-known among black voters than Gore) and Republican for Bush. Taken together, these wording problems may have led to enough confusion on the part of inattentive voters to create an unusually high support number for Bush.
I don’t know if that’s right. But I do know the Joint Center figure should not be taken seriously. The key task for the Democrats is, and will remain, mobilizing high numbers of black voters to go to the polls, not convincing them to vote for Kerry over Bush.