Does Race Still Matter?
by Spencer Overton, Fri Jul 28, 2006 at 07:22:09 PM EDT
The following ideas are from the third chapter of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression.
In December 2002, Republican Suzanne Haik Terrell had the political opportunity of her life. A month earlier, the Republicans had regained a majority in the United States Senate, securing 51 seats out of 100. Conservatives across the nation were now looking for Terrell to fortify the Republicans' slim majority by beating Louisiana's incumbent U.S. Senator, Democrat Mary Landrieu, in a runoff election on December 7.
A few days before the December 7 runoff election, pollsters proclaimed the race between Terrell and Landrieu a dead heat. One poll showed Landrieu at 47% and Terrell at 45%, with 8% of voters undecided. "It is a toss-up," said pollster Brad Coker, who noted that in most elections undecided voters lean toward the challenger.
But Terrell, like many Republicans around the country, had a problem. Polls showed that although 58% of whites supported Terrell, only 6% of African Americans said they would vote for her. Other Republican candidates had invested time and money trying to attract black votes with little success. The best use of Terrell's finite resources seemed to be to win over undecided moderate voters. She could only hope that fellow Republicans like U.S. Senator Trent Lott would avoid race-tinged comments that might stimulate African-American turnout and alienate white moderates.
Terrell's Democratic opponent, Senator Mary Landrieu, had a different race problem. Black Louisianans accounted for 32.5% of the state's population, but made up only 26% of the electorate in the November 5 primary--the lowest in the previous ten years. She could have avoided the entire runoff if she had secured a majority of the votes in the primary. Why didn't African Americans turn out for her?
Blacks had their reasons. Democratic State Senator Cleo Fields and many other African-American leaders claimed that Landrieu failed to respond to the needs of their community. They resented that she wooed conservative white voters by boasting how she voted with Republican President George W. Bush 74% of the time. "African-American voters should not be taken for granted by any elected official in a state that has such a high African-American population," Fields warned.
The polls for the December showdown shifted based on projections of black voter turnout. One poll showing Landrieu and Terrell tied if African Americans made up only 23% of the electorate revealed that Landrieu would enjoy a six-point lead if black turnout reached 28%. A final poll taken by Terrell's pollster, Verne Kennedy, the night before the election showed Terrell would win if African Americans made up only 26% of those who voted. "The higher it gets over 26 percent," said independent pollster Brad Coker, "the greater Landrieu's odds" of winning.
By noon on Election Day it was clear Landrieu might lose. Early reports showed turnout in African-American precincts to be lighter than expected. And Landrieu's opponents were on the attack. African-American youths held up signs in black neighborhoods parroting earlier statements by Democrat Cleo Fields: "Mary, if you don't respect us, don't expect us." The Louisiana Republican Party orchestrated and bankrolled the "grassroots" demonstration.
Other, less "accurate" postings had previously appeared. An unsigned flyer spread in African-American public housing complexes in New Orleans just before the runoff election claimed:
"Vote!!! Bad Weather? No problem!!! If the weather is uncomfortable on election day (Saturday December 7th) Remember you can wait and cast your ballot on Tuesday December 10th."
There was no rain date for voters to fall back on. The origins of this misleading flyer were never discovered.
The Landrieu campaign knew it was in big trouble. At 1:00 p.m., Louisiana native and former Al Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile set up a conference call with Landrieu, Cleo Fields, and former President Bill Clinton. One veteran political reporter said that "Brazile and Clinton were extremely blunt with Fields" in insisting that he immediately step up his get-out-the-vote operations in African-American neighborhoods in Baton Rouge. After the call, Landrieu raced to heavily black precincts in New Orleans with two popular African-American officials, Mayor Ray Nagin and Congressman William Jefferson. The trio and volunteers canvassed the community until the polls closed at 8:00 p.m. The Democratic phone banks did an all-out targeting of African-American neighborhoods from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. urging residents to go out and vote.
The efforts worked. African-American turnout in Fields's district was 3.5% higher than in the November 5 primary. Statewide, the efforts by the Democrats pushed African-American turnout to 335,000--27.1% of the electorate. Summing up Landrieu's victory a week later, Time Magazine reported that "[i]n the end, Landrieu managed to galvanize just enough of her crucial African-American base to break ahead."
Colorblindness may be politically correct, but it isn't politically accurate. As the Landrieu-Terrell contest in Louisiana shows, race is important largely because of the differences in voting patterns between whites and people of color. And these differences do not merely stem from racial disparities in class. Due to different voting patterns, racial turnout determines election outcomes through the United States.