The Magazine

Look Who's Race-Baiting Now

How Al Gore and the Democrats got out the black vote

Nov 27, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 11 • By MATTHEW REES
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ON THE EVENING of November 15, Al Gore took a break from wrangling over the election outcome to telephone the country's highest-rated black radio host, Tom Joyner. The call was to thank Joyner for his help in getting voters registered and motivating them to go to the polls. So grateful was Gore that when Joyner asked if he'd come on his radio show the next morning, Gore not only agreed, but put Tipper on the air as well. It was their first interview since the election.

Gore's gratitude is understandable. Without the efforts of Joyner and a number of other black advocates, he would certainly have lost the election. Not only was black turnout up in a number of key states, including Florida, but 90 percent of blacks voted for Gore, the highest black support for a presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson received 94 percent in 1964 (even Bill Clinton received only 84 percent four years ago). Had George W. Bush won even 12 percent of the black vote -- the rough average for GOP presidential candidates in recent elections -- he would have walked away with Florida, and perhaps some other states as well.

This is the second election in a row in which Republicans have fared considerably worse than expected, and on both occasions one reason has been higher-than-expected black turnout. Two years ago, Democrats scored upset victories in gubernatorial races in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama thanks to a major mobilization effort overseen by a little-known Democratic operative named Donna Brazile. For her efforts, she was named Gore's political director last year, and was later promoted to campaign manager. In these capacities, she helped neutralize Bill Bradley's effort to win over black voters, who loom large in the Democratic presidential primaries, and in the general election she directed a campaign to boost black registration and voting.

Given Brazile's prominence, and Gore's need to generate a high black turnout, it was unsurprising that he visited three black churches the weekend before the election. And this was no last-minute appeal to a group he'd ignored. During the campaign, Gore appeared before blacks far more often than any other racial or ethnic group or special-interest lobby. He also pandered in the worst way. It was before a black audience that he said Bush had pledged to appoint "strict constructionists" to the courts, and that strict constructionists had once considered each black three-fifths of a person.

Clinton, though out of the spot-light, also did what he could to boost black enthusiasm for Gore. He appeared on the Tom Joyner show a few days before the election and touted Gore as "the next best thing" to himself (the comment undoubtedly helped Gore with blacks, though privately Gore's aides winced). Clinton also had 150 black political leaders to the White House on October 27 to sing Gore's praises (and his own), and visited a number of black churches in the final weeks of the campaign.

According to David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black-oriented think tank, there's never been as big an effort to mobilize black voters as there was this year. It included many of the usual suspects, like Jesse Jackson, who boasted after the election, "It's the most I've ever really campaigned." But Jackson, who's always been more interested in TV time than the nuts and bolts work of politics, did little to boost turnout. Instead, most of the credit goes to a recently created arm of the NAACP called the National Voter Fund.

In just four months, it spent approximately $ 10 million to build an organization spanning 13 states. It began by registering voters -- 207,000 in all -- and then turned its attention to demonizing Bush, who as late as mid-July was the choice of 17 percent of blacks in a national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. It did this through a variety of radio and television ads, direct-mail pieces, and literature drops. Ostensibly nonpartisan, the effort was in fact an adjunct of the Gore campaign, concentrating its activity and advertising in swing states -- something the IRS may want to investigate in a Bush administration, hints New York Post columnist Michael Meyers.