Published: Feb 02 2004
|New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning
journalist who covers politics and
If the Democrats expect to win in November, they will have
to begin right now—in South Carolina, New Mexico and other Southern
states' primaries. How? By dealing with the neglected gold mine in
their midst. Forget the so-called dichotomy between the red and blue
states that so enthralls pundits. Come fall, the winning colors
could be black and brown: Key states house huge numbers of
non-voting but Democratically inclined African-American and Latino
Of course, skeptics will note that it's meaningless to keep
counting raw numbers of potentially Democratic voters if they can't
actually be persuaded to vote.
However, both numbers and motivating factors are not the same as
they used to be. For one thing, Latino populations in key
Southwestern states have surged in recent years, and—President
Bush's symbolic overtures notwithstanding—Latino voters remain
overwhelmingly poor, alienated and Democratic. As Joe Velasquez and
Steve Cobble noted recently in The Nation, "There are as many
unregistered Latinos who are American citizens as there were Latino
voters in 2000—more than 5.5 million. These potential voters are not
likely Bush voters, despite Republican rhetoric."
For another, blacks now make up about half of the potential
Democratic vote in certain contestable deep—and shallow—southern
states, and, unlike white Democrats, are much less inclined to cross
With Gore's popular-vote victory and the jigsaw dynamics of such
a narrow electoral loss, these factors are more consequential than
ever. For example, in South Carolina, out of 800,000 eligible black
voters and 575,175 registered black voters, only 282,000 voted in
2000. Similarly significant numbers emerge in Tennessee, North
Carolina and other potential battlefields.
Futhermore, contrary to the belief that declining blacks and
Latino turnout may be responsible for Democratic woes, numbers
indicate the opposite. Alabama is typical, where Republican Bob
Riley beat Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman in 2002 by just 3000 votes
out of 1.3 million cast. A Riley landslide had been expected, and
researchers in that state credit the narrow margin to unexpectedly
heavy black turnout.
The proof is there on the national level as well. In 1996, 17.1
percent of Bill Clinton's votes came from blacks; by 2000, they
formed 18.9 percent of Gore voters. Latinos, who were five percent
of all voters in 1996, made up 7.3 percent of the Clinton turnout.
Four years later, they were seven percent of all voters, but gave
Gore 9.6 percent of his total. Combined, the black-brown vote was
24.4 percent of Clinton's total and 28.5 percent of Gore's. These
figures come from the Joint Center for Political and Economic
To some extent, the problem for Democrats is not that eligible
black and brown voters don't vote. The problem, of course, is how
many of these tantalizing millions are either unregistered or
unmotivated to vote. The solution sounds simple enough: excite and
mobilize people. But making this happen is neither easy nor cheap.
It will require not only registering large numbers and ensuring they
get to the polls, but, crucially, making sure that when they do show
up to vote, they are not intimidated or harassed.
Bringing Out Voters
So, who out there is up to meeting this vexing double challenge?
A number of candidates this year have awoken to a renewed interest
in organizing at the grassroots level. But it's one thing to pull
that off in small, sparsely-populated, compact states like New
Hampshire, and another to do so in places like Tennessee, which has
a much larger, diffused base.
According to Kevin Gray, author of the forthcoming book The
Death of Black Politics, the black community would indeed
register and vote in far greater numbers if approached by a massive
door-to-door effort, and would respond both to economic issues and
to the war and occupation of Iraq. This would require the early
establishment of credible organizational links and a real, ongoing
dialogue with these communities. It's a tremendous amount of work,
virtually all physical, and ever so different from an endless round
of fundraising calls and TV commercial shoots.
One viable approach is to divert a sizable share of the huge sums
raised for ephemeral TV ads into hiring old-fashioned "pullers." As
anyone who grew up in Brooklyn or Chicago or LA's West Side knows,
it takes hundreds of committed soldiers on the ground, working day
in and day out, first to register everyone, and then to virtually
drag them to the polls.
Intriguingly, real efforts do appear to be afoot. Last year, the
labor movement launched the well-funded Partnership for America's
Families (PAF). Run by Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's former
political director, and armed with $30 million, its aim is to apply
the successful methods of labor's recent organizing boom to
sympathetic groups outside of the labor movement, with people of
color the primary audience. PAF is developing both high- and
low-tech methods of outreach. Critics have complained that resources
would be better spent with established entities like the Coalition
of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and the Labor Council for Latin
American Advancement to help them develop potential in their own
communities. In fact, resources will need to go to both kinds of
groups, and people will have to set aside their traditional
sectarianism if they're serious about working for change.
Another urgent priority is protecting the vote. Federal monitors
are advisable in predominantly black precincts in places like
Kentucky (and Florida!), where intimidating "voter challenges" have
taken place in the past and are expected again. The National
Coalition on Black Civic Participation and its affiliates in
Mississippi and elsewhere can help provide guidance on this. It
would also make sense for statesmen like Jimmy Carter, who leads
delegations to protect democracy abroad by monitoring polling
stations, to make the same commitment to their own country's
The Democratic party, and its would-be nominees, can't afford to
wait past the current round of primaries, many of which are about to
unfold in crucial swing states. For anyone serious about affecting
the math in November, the time to build a base is now.