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Primary Colors 
Published: Feb 02 2004

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

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 voters.

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 party lines.

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.

Numbers Game

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 Studies.

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.

Foot Soldiers

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 electoral integrity.

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.


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