By Cornell Belcher and Donna Brazile
The 2006 midterm elections brought about monumental change in the nation’s power structure when Democrats, bolstered by the support of Black and Hispanic voters, took control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since 1992. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-CA 8) made history when she was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House, and a record 87 women are now serving in Congress (16 in the Senate and 71 in the House of Representatives) plus three female Delegates to the House from Guam, the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. Of the 74 women Representatives and Delegates, 23 are women of color (14 African Americans, 7 Latinas and 2 Asian Pacific Islanders).
Although the number of African American candidates elected to federal office did not change during the 2006 midterm elections, Duval Patrick was elected the first Black Governor of Massachusetts (the second African American to serve as Governor in the history of the U.S.). Record numbers of Black candidates ran for public office at all levels of government, and targeted races for higher office included Black candidates from both major parties.
White voters broke 51 percent to 47 percent for Republicans this past midterm election. As the white vote grows increasingly polarized, the outcome of more and more elections will rest in the hands of Black and Hispanic voters nationally. In this polarized environment, the ability of either party to win and hold together a majority coalition rests heavily on its ability to compete for and win over minority voters by both serving their interests and running more minority candidates.
The Republican effort to be a truly “big tent party” took a huge step backwards this November 7th. Despite making valuable inroads with the Hispanic community in 2004, and despite an unprecedented outreach campaign to minority voters in ’05-’06 that saw former GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman making speeches apologizing for the notorious race-baiting GOP “Southern strategy,” Republicans lost considerable ground among both Hispanic and African American voters this past midterm election. Democrats actually garnered a larger share of the African American and Hispanic vote in 2006 than they had in the previous election.
After losing ground with Hispanics in 2004, Democrats improved their performance by an astonishing 16 points among Hispanic voters in 2006. And while we thought Democrats had perhaps reached a ceiling among African American voters, they managed to improve their performance with Black voters by 3 points this past fall. Our ability to expand the base vote helped in several key battleground areas where we squeaked past Republicans in races that were toss-ups going into the closing week. Democrats were also able to improve their performance in the African American community despite the fact that Republicans fielded a number of very high-profile Black candidates for statewide office in key states this past election cycle.
In two states with major implications for the 2008 presidential race, Senate Republicans experienced major disaffection from African American voters as their support dropped by 6 points in Missouri, and by a startling 17 points in Ohio. This erosion is a profound step backwards given the fact that Republicans had such high hopes and employed such aggressive strategies for courting African American voters coming into this cycle.
Losing (more) Black voters
The Republican persuasion campaign targeting African Americans ultimately collapsed under the negative weight of President George W. Bush. In our post-election polling by Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies, Bush ended the election cycle with a nine (yes, nine) percent job approval rating among African American voters. That is eight points below the job approval rating of Congress among African Americans. By contrast, in our national poll of all voters, Bush’s job performance, while low, was consistently higher than that of Congress throughout 2006 meaning that while voters as a whole were most upset with Congress, African Americans were most displeased with Bush himself.
On Election Day 2006, African Americans’ primary focus was a desire for change. In our post-election poll, when we open-endedly asked voters what was on their minds as they entered the polling booth to vote, a 32-percent plurality of African American voters said they wanted to change the state of the country or get Republicans out. Twenty-two percent said they were thinking about Iraq, 21 percent said they were thinking about who would do the best job, and 10 percent said they were thinking about the economy.
In this environment of intense dissatisfaction with the Bush/Republican status quo, the power of the Black Republican candidate to appeal and attract more African Americans to the Republican Party failed to materialize in 2006. In Pennsylvania, GOP gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann might have actually set Republicans back further. Even Senatorial candidate Michael S. Steele in Maryland–who presented the greatest threat to the Democratic hold on African American voters early on–ultimately failed to sever the coalition. Indeed, failing to garner even one-third of the Black vote, these high profile Black Republican candidates were simply outside the mainstream of Black political attitudes.
Democrats dodged a bullet this cycle, as few Republicans in tough races were able to escape the burdensome weight of President Bush’s albatross. But the story could have been very different. Early on in the year, Republicans were well positioned to compete for the considerable swath of African American voters who were questioning their support for Democrats and seeking alternatives. Heading into the summer of 2005, about three-fourths of the Black electorate nationwide said they would support the Democratic candidate in November 2006. While not a substantial drop from the 88 percent Kerry secured in 2004, Republican efforts appeared successful enough to at least have given some African American voters pause. That window of opportunity for Republicans soon closed, however, as the end of the summer saw the disastrous Bush Administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. And by our February 2006 poll, 83 percent of African American voters were once again supporting Democratic candidates.
While the Katrina debacle clearly undermined Republican efforts to court African American voters, there were plenty of other issues important to African Americans that proved problematic for Republicans. According to our internal post-election polling, health care, education, Iraq, the minimum wage, and the economy/jobs topped the list of issues that Black voters said most guided their vote. From wages and the economy to Iraq, Republicans were not on the same side of the issues as the broader African American community. In the summer of 2006, a 61 percent majority of African Americans wanted an immediate removal of all troops from Iraq. Consequently, Republicans were not well positioned to pick up African American votes.
Furthermore, over the past few years Republicans have attempted to win over African Americans by focusing on so-called “moral issues.” While that strategy may have reaped some benefits for them in 2004, Republicans, caught up in a culture of corruption two years later, found no traction on those issues in 2006, in part because they ranked among the lowest priorities for African American voters. Public exit-polling showed the economy (57 percent), corruption (51 percent) and terrorism (44 percent) were the strongest issues tested, while values and immigration (33 and 26 percent, respectively) fell toward the bottom of the list with Black voters.
The Rise of the African American Swing Vote
Early in 2006, our polling among African American voters in the battleground states of Missouri, Ohio and Maryland revealed the possibility of an erosion of Black base voters in the Democratic Party. Nearly one-third (31 percent) of Black voters in these battleground states were identified as persuadable swing voters, compared to 61 percent who were strong Democrats and 9 percent who were strong Republicans. Younger voters and men, in particular, are less wedded to the history of the Democratic Party and, therefore, more willing to do some comparison-shopping. This is especially true of independents and drop-off voters. The following graph illustrates just how up-for-grabs important subgroups of the Black base were back in the spring of 2006 in these states.
Early on in Maryland and Ohio (both of which had relatively large swing components), we initially felt that both Steele (Maryland candidate for U.S. Senate) and Blackwell (Ohio candidate for governor) gave some African American voters pause in their support for Democrats, and had the potential to extend Republicans’ reach statewide.
In Maryland, for example, there were an equal number of swing and base voters among African Americans (Strong Democrats: 43 percent; Persuadable/Swing: 44 percent). We cannot overemphasize how deeply Steele’s candidacy could have carved into the Democratic Party’s African American base (and taken him on to victory, considering he carried white voters in the state) if not for the implementation of a well-orchestrated Democratic persuasion program aimed at swing African American voters. A conventional GOTV-only communication program would have been particularly inept in both Ohio and Maryland, because the African American vote there (not to mention around the country) is increasingly undecided. In our polling, we found that less than a year out from the election, while 74 percent of African American voters in Missouri could be considered base Democratic voters, just 54 percent in Ohio could (that is, they were certain of their support and there was little chance of them switching their vote). The situation was even worse in Maryland, where just 43 percent of African American voters could be considered base Democratic voters.
All three states experienced some unique movement of African American voters when comparing the Senate contests of 2004 to those of 2006. In Ohio, African American voters moved in large numbers to the Democratic candidate. In Missouri, there was also some growth in African American support of the Democratic Senate candidate, although this growth was constrained somewhat by the high level of support African Americans gave the Democratic candidate in 2004. Maryland, however, shows that Republicans do have the ability to cut into the level of support Democrats normally enjoy if a credible candidate (someone who can at least argue that he or she can give convincing voice to the concerns and values of the community) is on the ballot and he or she makes an effort to court the African American vote. The 2004 results in Ohio also show this ability. If Democrats treat African American voters simply as turnout targets, it is likely that the results seen in Maryland this year and in Ohio in 2004 will become much more the norm, rather than the exception.
Nationally, turnout of all voters increased slightly from 2002 to 2006. And while the lack of 2002 exit poll data makes it impossible to make estimates of 2002 Black voter turnout, there is evidence to suggest that the Black share of the off-year electorate has held steady at 10 percent since 1998. It is reasonable to assume then, that Black turnout also experienced the same slight bump since 2002 that overall turnout did.
That said, Black turnout continues to lag behind overall voter turnout, though the gap appears to be shrinking. In 2006, about 38 percent of the U.S. voting age population turned out to vote, compared to about 34 percent of the Black voting age population. That gap of 4.1 percentage points, while wider than the historically small 1.4-point gap of 2004, represents a significant narrowing since 2000, when the gap was 6.3 points.
Perhaps the most important point to be made about Black turnout in 2006, however, is that there were several states where Black turnout increased significantly and had profound impacts on contested statewide Senate and gubernatorial races.
In Missouri, for instance, the Black share of the electorate increased from 8 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2006. That surge of Black electoral participation likely made the difference in Democrat Claire McCaskill’s victory over Republican incumbent Senator Jim Talent. Similar surges in the Black share of the vote also occurred in Maryland, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, helping to propel Democratic statewide candidates to victory. Finally, the increase in the Black share of the vote in Tennessee (from 11 percent in 1998 to 13 percent in 2006) likely made the Ford/Corker Senate contest closer than it otherwise might have been.
The real story of the 2006 election is the re-emergence of the Democratic Party as a national party, competing for voters in every section of the country among more demographic groups. Our current majority rests on Democrats’ ability to expand the playing field and compete strongly in all counties, states, and regions in 2006. This phenomenon reveals a roadmap for 2008 and should also call into serious question the wisdom of the traditional Democratic battleground-state strategy. Too often in past elections, narrowly casting our political net has left us hungry. The so-called “battleground-state strategy,” as it is currently constituted, not only makes Democrats captive to an increasingly small group of interests, but also effectively disenfranchises segments of the Party’s strongest blocs of voters. Progressives will not build an effective movement in this country until they broaden their strategies to allow for greater engagement and mobilization of Black and Hispanic citizens in the South and West.
Cornell Belcher is the founder and president of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategies and functions as the principal strategist on all of the firm’s projects. Belcher is experienced at campaign politics and has over a decade of expertise in quantitative and qualitative research, message development, and product and behavioral insight. His clients include the Democratic National Committee and the Barack Obama for President campaign.
Donna Brazile is Founder and Managing Director of Brazile and Associates, LLC. Brazile, Chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute (VRI) and an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, is a senior political strategist and former Campaign Manager for Gore-Lieberman 2000–the first African American to lead a major presidential campaign. Prior to joining the Gore campaign, Brazile was Chief of Staff and Press Secretary to Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia where she helped guide the District’s budget and local legislation on Capitol Hill.
By Cornell Belcher and Donna Brazile