Can African American Voters Save Us From Ourselves?

10/19/2010 11:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If the pollsters are correct, on November 2 we are likely to elect people to both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives who want to privatize Social Security, end unemployment compensation, repeal civil rights legislation and health care reform, ignore climate change, allow big corporations to secretly finance candidates for public office, and abandon the progressive tax code. It is a scary prospect.

However, a recent analysis by David Bositis, Senior Research Associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, who has been tracking black politics since 1980, offers some hope for those of us who do not want to return to the "each man (and woman) for himself" philosophy that never fails to devastate our economy, wreak havoc on our environment, and threaten our democratic process. His analysis indicates that if African American voters turn out in strong numbers in key jurisdictions, some of these extremist candidates can be derailed.

According to Bositis, African Americans remain the most loyal constituency of the Democratic Party. This is no surprise. After all, it was the Democratic Party under President Lyndon Johnson that provided the leadership for the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And it was the Republican Party, despite the presence of moderates like Jacob Javits of New York, Charles McMathias of Maryland, and Everett Dirksen of Illinois, that responded to these legislative milestones by engineering the so-called "southern strategy" of 1968 that successfully sought to siphon off white voters in the South by stoking their anger and fears about the newly-won rights of African Americans. The GOP has been stoking these fears ever since.

Thus, while Democratic candidates for President during the past 40 years have generally been unable to garner a majority of white votes, they have been able to count on receiving 90% or more of the black vote. President Obama received only 43% of the white vote, but 95% of the black vote in 2008, and the huge turnout of black voters he inspired carried a significant number of down ballot Democratic candidates into office. The result was the huge majorities in both the Senate and the House the Democrats have enjoyed during the past two years.

However, these Democratic majorities are in serious jeopardy in 2010. Nearly 70% of white working class voters, driven by frustration with the economy and perhaps by latent racial fears, are poised to vote Republican, including for Tea Party extremists, and against their own economic interests. The new Republican majorities, if they materialize, will include people who want to abandon virtually all of the progressive policies of the past 75 years, policies that have provided some measure of financial security to senior citizens and to people laid off from jobs through no fault of their own, sought to guarantee equal rights to our African American citizens, protected our environment, and attempted to introduce a greater level of fairness into our tax code.

The firewall for Democrats, says Bositis, is the African American vote. There are 14 competitive U.S. Senate races, as well as 20 competitive U.S. House races, in which the black vote could potentially decide the winner. In five states polling indicates that the Senate races are virtually even. In Nevada, where Tea Partier Sharon Angle is the Republican candidate, the black voting age population represents more than 8% of the total electorate. In Illinois, where Republican candidate Mark Kirk has launched a thinly-veiled attempt to depress the black vote, nearly 14% of the electorate is African American. In Colorado, where Tea Partier Ken Buck is the Republican candidate, Kentucky where anti-civil rights Tea Partier Rand Paul is the Republican candidate, and Pennsylvania, where ultra-conservative Pat Toomey is the Republican nominee, the black percentages of the total electorate are, respectively, 4.3%, 6.8%, and 9.6%. While these may not seem like large percentages, in such close races they are enough to determine the outcome.

The key is black turnout, and here, Bositis offers encouraging news for Democrats. He points to two mid-term elections, 12 years apart, when black voter turnout had a substantial impact on the results. In 1986, when there was a particularly strong effort to mobilize black voters in the wake of Jesse Jackson's 1984 run for President, the turnout of black voters reached record levels, and the Democrats regained a majority in the Senate. In 1998, when President Bill Clinton, viewed favorably by 80% of African Americans, was under the threat of impeachment, the black voter turnout was substantially higher than usual, and in the South virtually the same as white voter turnout. As a result, Democrats actually gained seats, unusual for the party in power in a midterm election.

Today, twelve years after the 1998 midterms, President Obama is viewed favorably by 95% of black voters. Given this favorability rating and the anger being generated among African Americans by the intense attacks he's under from extremist candidates, the major effort underway to turn that anger into election-day votes may give Democrats a significant advantage in tight races. With a black voter turnout comparable to 1986 and 1998, Democrats will almost certainly retain control of the U.S. Senate, and they will have a fighting chance of retaining control of the U.S. House.

So, at a time when frustration and fear are blinding a majority of white voters to their own economic self-interest, black voters may well hold the key to which political party will drive the Congressional agenda during the next two years. Will they turn out in sufficient numbers to save us from ourselves?