Some Black Voters View Gore as the Lesser of Two Evils
By Terry M. Neal, the Washington Post,
Sunday , October 29, 2000 ; Page A24
CHICAGO -- Here in the economic heart of black Chicago, along 79th
Street on the South Side, Margo Evans and Tony Banks sit in the back
of an African art and fabrics store--customers strolling in and
out--contemplating the presidential election.
Both plan to vote, but they are hardly excited about it. They agree
that neither candidate has spent much time addressing issues of
particular concern to African Americans, and that Vice President Gore
is looking better each day if for no other reason than George W. Bush
has diminished so greatly in their eyes.
Gore is counting on black voters like them in the industrial,
battleground states to help put him over the top in the presidential
contest against Bush. How many of those voters go to the polls could
make the difference in states such as Illinois, Missouri, Ohio,
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Bush's ambitions are more modest: He wants to do a few percentage
points better than previous Republican presidential candidates or at a
minimum defuse the anger at Republicans that has often driven black
voters to the polls.
Interviews with 20 black likely voters indicate that both candidates
could have trouble meeting their goals. While 20 interviews in one
city hardly counts as a scientific poll, the similarity of their
responses is problematic for both men.
"Well, Gore's better than Bush," said Evans, 64. "But he's
no Bill Clinton. That's for sure. If you gave us a chance, most of us
would vote for Clinton for a third term. This is going to be kind of
like voting for the lesser of two evils."
The phrase "lesser of two evils" was the common denominator in
the interviews. Is the seeming ambivalence of politically aware,
middle-class people like Evans and Banks a bad sign for Gore? If they
are barely motivated to vote, what about their poorer, less
politically aware neighbors in the sprawling, poor to working-class
communities south and west of downtown Chicago?
The interviews show complex feelings that are not reflected in polls,
such as the one released last week by the nonpartisan Joint Center for
Political and Economic Studies. It showed Gore's favorability among
blacks increasing 17 points to 86 percent since last year, while
Bush's has declined 14 points to 29 percent.
David Bositis, the center's senior political analyst, said Gore
solidified his black support by stating his unequivocal support for
affirmative action and his commitment to ending racial profiling by
police. Bush faltered by offering what some black voters perceived as
a contrived convention in which minorities were featured while issues
of concern were ignored.
"Gore has done what he needed to do," said Bositis. "He
needed to let black Americans know that he's going to continue along
the same policies as the Clinton administration. At this point, he's
indistinguishable from Clinton."
But the toughest thing for polls to measure is intensity of support,
which probably explains some of the difference in the views of Bositis
and Evans. In Chicago last week, not one of the likely voters
expressed anything close to the level of enthusiasm for Gore that the
center's poll suggests should be there.
While only one person said she planned to vote for Bush (a few
declined to answer or said they were still undecided), several said
they would vote for Gore for no other reason than that they could not
stand Bush. Most also said they believed Gore probably would continue
the same policies as Clinton, but they said they were turned off by
his efforts to distance himself from the president, who remains the
most popular politician--black or white--among African Americans.
No one knows how this will translate on Election Day, but it does at
least raise the question of whether Gore has generated the enthusiasm
he needs among the Democrats' most loyal constituency.
"I just don't see any momentum there," said store manager
Banks, shaking his head. But then, citing Texas's death penalty record
and its relatively poor record on children's health care, he added:
"I'll vote against Bush based on his Texas record alone."
Community activist Wallace "Gator" Bradley, a south-side
resident who works for a group combating gang violence, put it this
way: "It's the deadest presidential election that I've ever
seen. There's no rah-rah."
Several people said that until recently, neither the Gore campaign nor
the Democrats had made much of an effort to woo the community. But
recently, Jesse L. Jackson has stepped up his efforts, as has the
local NAACP. And at a news conference last Monday, Nation of Islam
leader Louis Farrakhan urged black Chicagoans to vote, although he
declined to endorse anyone.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has begun buying ads in
excess of $1 million on black radio to bolster Bush and other
Republicans by focusing on issues such as school vouchers (which
blacks support at a higher rate than whites) and small-business
A couple of people in Chicago said the message they were getting from
Democratic leaders was not so much that Gore was great on the issues
but that Bush was horrible and that a vote for Green Party candidate
Ralph Nadar was tantamount to a vote for Bush.
"In the community, they're being scared into believing that Gore
is the better candidate," said Bradley, who said he is undecided
on whether to vote for Gore or Ralph Nader. "They keep saying if
Bush wins, all hell is going to break lose. They talk about how he
likes the death penalty. But they forget that Gore supports the death
Many said they got the impression that Democrats were focused on
courting white, suburban women--and to a lesser extent,
Latinos--almost to the exclusion of blacks.
While some voters said they were grateful for Gore's statements on
affirmative action and racial profiling, they said a host of issues
had been ignored.
Among those issues are the sentencing disparity for possession of
powdered cocaine--used primarily by whites--and crack cocaine-- more
prevalent in black communities. Along similar lines, many blacks have
grown increasingly frustrated with disparities in the application of
the death sentence, which studies have shown blacks are more likely to
get than whites for similar crimes.
Some of black America's prominent media figures, including nationally
syndicated radio personality Tom Joyner, have taken Gore to task for
ignoring these issues. In an interview on Oct. 4, the day after the
first presidential debate in Boston, Gore told Joyner that he did not
bring up those issues because debate moderator Jim Lehrer did not ask
about them. He promised to say more in the next two debates. But other
than a sharp exchange with Bush in the last debate over affirmative
action in which Gore forced Bush into a vague, bumbling answer, the
vice president largely dropped the ball, many blacks say.
BET commentator Tavis Smiley said in an interview last week on CNBC's
"Rivera Live," "As far as I am concerned, Bush, in Texas,
is nothing more than a serial killer. But we can't expect that much
more out of Gore."
Gore campaign officials insisted that they had not taken black voters
for granted, noting that the campaign has been running radio spots
featuring Gore talking about such topics as affirmative action and
racial profiling since the end of September on black radio in
battleground states. And this week Congressional Black Caucus members
will begin a fly-around to four battleground states--Louisiana,
Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee.
"We certainly hope that African American voters are going to be
motivated by Al Gore's vision," Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway
said. "The differences between Gore and Bush couldn't be more
Nonetheless, said Bridgette McCullough, a 35-year-old graduate student
at the University of Chicago: "The Democrats used to talk about
civil rights. I was in the sixth grade when Jimmy Carter ran. I was so
excited. Part of it was because my parents were excited. Now it almost
seems a liability to bring up black people."
2000 The Washington Post