Should McCain Write Off African-American Voters?

Republican presidential contender John McCain bluntly said in a June 5 interview with ABC World News Tonight that he didn’t feel that he had to address racial issues in the campaign. At first glance it seems that it wouldn’t do him much good if he did.

The universal political consensus is that if ever a GOP Republican presidential candidate had virtually no chance of getting any measurable number of black votes it’s McCain. The passion, even sheer thrill, that blacks feel and have shown at the chance to back the first black presidential candidate with a legitimate shot at winning the White House is off the charts. Black voters have stampeded the polls in near-record numbers in some states to back Obama. Many are unabashed in saying in exit polls that race is the big reason they turned out. That’s unlikely to change in November, and that again seems to be bad news for McCain.

A May 30 Gallup poll found that McCain’s unfavorable rating among blacks has leaped more than 25 percentage points since last June. But poll numbers in and of themselves don’t tell the whole story about how elections are won or lost.

No GOP presidential contender since Barry Goldwater with his blatant anti-civil rights, pro-states' rights pitch did worse than Bush Jr. in the 2000 presidential election with black voters. He got a dismal single digit percentage number of their vote. In 2004, he did only marginally better overall among black voters. His Democratic rival John Kerry still got nearly ninety percent of the black vote. That’s about the same percentage that Obama got in the primaries. But the numbers and percentage of the black vote that he got ultimately weren’t the deciding factor in Bush’s victories or in Hillary Clinton’s primary wins over Obama. The more important thing was whether they were able to get at least some percentage of the black vote in the must win battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Put simply, Bush, or Clinton didn’t need to get a major bump up in black support to win, they just needed a marginal increase in the key swing states. They got the few percentage points they needed in those states and that made a difference in their wins.

McCain starts with something that Bush never had among black voters: a much higher favorability rating. The Gallup poll that showed McCain‘s unfavorable rating jump also showed a slight uptick in his favorability rating among blacks. It wasn’t much, but it’s just enough of a slender thread to hang a bet on that by spending some time and resources in courting the black vote he could do what appears to be the impossible and actually win a small but significant percentage of the vote in some key states to make a difference.

McCain made that bet last September. He was the only major GOP candidate to agree to participate in a GOP debate on race and urban issues. He ultimately backed out but only after the other major candidates also declined to appear. Since then, McCain braved boos of the crowd at the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration in Memphis in April, and even managed to turn the boos into applause when he did a public mea culpa for opposing a state holiday for King in Arizona. He then traveled to Selma to speak at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where civil rights marchers were mauled by police in 1965 to commemorate the Voting Rights. He’s accepted an invitation to speak at the NAACP convention in July.

McCain is under no illusion that this will do anything to dampen Obama enthusiasm among black voters. He candidly admits that it will be the steepest uphill fight to get the barest amount of black vote support. The intent, though, is to get a small ramp up in the black vote in the must win swing states, and even more importantly, to soften the hostility toward his candidacy. The idea is to do and say nothing to inflame and anger black voters. A bungle here would guarantee that blacks would flood the polls en masse not just to vote for Obama but to vote against McCain. That would be political suicide.

The black vote in every election since Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Goldwater in 1964 has not been in play for any GOP presidential candidate. That’s because with the arguable exception of Bush in 2004 none have done anything to get it. McCain says this time he will. He won’t shake their massive support for Obama, but he doesn’t have to. He just needs a few more of their votes in the right places to make the difference.