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October 15, 2005 -- Mark Satin, Editor

The rise of the
independent black voter

by John Avlon

"Crime -- I'm conservative. Prostitution -- I'm liberal," says the reigning King of Comedy, Chris Rock.

The libertarian sounding riff received rounds of laughter and applause from the audience recorded for his recent HBO special, but it hits on a deeper trend whose ripples could build up to rock underlying assumptions about American politics.

African-Americans are de-aligning from the Democratic Party, but Republicans have so far failed to pick them up in significant numbers. The result is a shift that could increase the influence of, and competition for, African-American votes, while swelling the rising tide of independent voters across the nation.

The old trend

Until recently one of the truisms of American politics that blacks were the most dependable constituency of any party in America, with over 90% of their votes going to Democratic candidates. This trend began when the FDR New Deal coalition reached out to the dispossessed during the Great Depression and claimed the allegiance of many blacks from the Party of Lincoln.

This was compounded during the 1960s when the Republican Party embraced the philosophy of states rights, leading Barry Goldwater to win 87% of the vote in Mississippi while Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society civil rights legislation won a nationwide landslide victory.

When Ronald Reagan chose to symbolically kick off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss. -- where, coincidentally or not, the CORE trinity of Cheney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered by the KKK -- these perceptions were highlighted in a way that the substantive elevation of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice has not yet been able to eliminate.

The new trend

But something has been happening in the African-American community.

Just as the Reverend Al Sharpton hasn't gotten the memo that there is no position titled "Leader of Black America" available anymore, the diversification of the black community economically and politically is changing the landscape. One recent sign of this is the surprising amount of support for Mayor Bloomberg among African-American voters.

In a city where local elections have too long been defined by ethnic algebra, Republicans have had a hard time winning over black voters. But Mr. Bloomberg has made an appeal to African-Americans a cornerstone of his re-election bid, while straining to show his independence from the national Republican Party. A recent WNBC/Marist poll showed the mayor receiving 50% support from black voters in a race against Fernando Ferrer with the election five weeks away.

Rev. Sharpton's endorsement of Mr. Ferrer has so far failed to shift that balance, and while the mayor's mistaken decision to not attend a debate at the Apollo Theater in Harlem last week may somewhat impact his support, the break in the often-invoked "coalition of color" in favor of a Republican mayor is extraordinary.

It has also been fueled by the New York Independence Party's enthusiastic campaigning for Mr. Bloomberg among the African-American community with a voter push titled "Bloomberg on C," offering people the chance to re-elect the mayor without pulling the Republican lever.

There is evidence that this trend is not limited to Mr. Bloomberg. In St. Petersburg, Fla., the conservative Republican mayor, Rick Baker -- a close ally of the governor, Jeb Bush -- is cruising to re-election with an unlikely 85% support among African-American voters in a city that had been deeply divided by race. The reason? Mr. Baker spent serious time and effort rebuilding a previously ignored center of the city, now know as Midtown.

Young black voters lead the way

A national analysis of shifts in the black community shows that the move away from the Democratic Party and towards political independence is strongest among young African-American voters.

According to a paper titled "The Political Orientations of Young African-Americans" by David A. Bositis in the journal Soul (underwritten by the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University), one quarter of African-American voters under the age of 35 now identify as political independents, in contrast to 10% of senior citizens.

The growing trend is broad as well as deep -- in 1998 only 5% of African-American voters between the age of 51 and 64 identified as independents, but by 2002 that number increased fourfold to 21%.

This analysis shows that 25% of young black voters are self-described conservatives, while 31% are moderates. On education policy, 66% support school vouchers for public, private or parochial school -- a major point of policy difference between the Republican and Democratic Party -- while nearly 80% favor partial privatization of Social Security.

This is in sharp contrast to African-American elected officials in particular, of whom 70% over the age of 40 oppose school vouchers.

Democrats beginning to panic

This growing disconnect between the liberal African-American political establishment and young voters should cause serious concern among Democratic Party power brokers.

The national spokesman for the Congress on Racial Equality, Niger Innis, believes that "the trend of younger black voters moving away from the plantation to the independent line, if not the Republican Party, is reflective of a moderation of tone, a movement away from the traditional left wing."

"That momentum scares the beejezus out of the establishment left-wing black leadership," Mr. Innis continues. "That's why they're getting more caustic and extreme with their language, because they want to stroke paranoia among the black community so that nothing changes."

This, in turn, only fuels the generational divide which is evident when you compare younger African-American elected leaders such as Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. of Memphis TN to a former Black Panther such as Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago's South Side, or Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois to the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The question

A realignment is under way. The question is whether the Republican Party can convincingly reach out to African-American voters, or whether further de-alignment toward independents will occur in this absence.

In any case, it is a healthy sign of a nation that is slowly evolving past crippling left/right, black/white limitations and toward a fundamentally freer time when an individual's political beliefs are assumed to be more than skin deep.


John Avlon, b. 1973, worked on Bill Clinton's re-election campaign, then was Mayor Giuliani's chief speechwriter from 1997-2001.  He is the author of Independent Nation (Crown / Random House, pbk. 2005).


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