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Election 2008 - The African American Vote

Hilary O. Shelton, Director of the NAACP's Washington Bureau; Lorenzo Morris, Professor of Political Science, Howard University
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
February 11, 2008

11:30 P.M. EST

Lorenzo Morris and Hilary Shelton at the Washington Foreign Press Center
MODERATOR: Good morning and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Welcome also to journalists at our New York Foreign Press Center. Today's briefing is on the African American vote and we have two very distinguished speakers with us today.

We have Mr. Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau and Mr. Lorenzo Morris, Chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University. Both will make very brief opening statements and then we will take your questions.

MR. SHELTON: Good morning. My name is Hilary Shelton. I am director of the NAACP's Washington bureau. The Washington bureau is the federal legislative and national public policy arm of the nation's oldest and largest grassroots-based civil rights organization. We have about 2,200 membership units throughout the United States but we also have membership units on military bases in Italy, Germany, Korea and Japan.

NAACP is celebrating its ninety-ninth birthday, as a matter of fact, tomorrow. We hope you'll all give a toast to us or maybe cut a birthday cake or something along those lines. But we have been at this for quite some time.

As I mentioned, we have membership units throughout the United States and in every state in the United States that are very actively engaged in this process. What we've seen is a couple things as we've talked about African American voters. From 2000 to 2004, we saw a significant increase in African American voters, particularly among African American young people, that is 18 to 24. We have seen African American voters, male and female, coming to vote in a much more partisan way than ever before. That is, they have come in with a conviction to cast a vote, but not necessarily having made the decision -- well, having made the decision more than ever who they are going to vote for, regardless of which party they may have very well decided to vote. We saw that increase in 2000 as we moved towards that landmark election.

Then in 2004, we were fearful that because of many of the improprieties that occurred throughout the country, particularly in places like Florida in 2000 and then Ohio in 2004, that many of the new African American voters would have been turned off from participating in the election and we found just the opposite, that very well the conviction ran higher, the commitment was stronger and the overall vision that, very well, they've tried things to prevent us from participating in the electoral process, but we have determined that very well we must vote, we must make sure that those who gave so much in the past, including sweat and blood, are very well vindicated and that we continue to participate in that process.

With that, we produced a number of documents that I am looking forward to discussing with you. One is, every year we put out something called the Federal Candidates Questionnaire, as we move to actually educate our members across the country on issues important to our neighborhoods. This is simply a questionnaire in which anyone seeking federal office is very well asked by people on the ground, our members throughout the United States -- and we have, as I mentioned before, over 500,000 card-carrying members throughout this country -- are asking them about questions of where they stand on equal opportunity programs like Affirmative Action, where they stand on health care reform and housing for low and moderate income families. Where do you stand on issues like racial profiling and hate crimes in the United States? What will be your program to address African Americans and others being able to more fully participate in our system as being hired by people, that is being fully employed?

We know on any given day, the unemployment rate in the African American community is over twice that of our white counterparts. So as we sit here today, with between 4 and 5 percent unemployment rate overall, in the African American community it is approximately 10 percent, between 9 and 10 percent. And among African American youth, particularly males between 16 and 24, in many of our communities, it is over 50 percent. So indeed, the questions very specific to our communities as we rally our voters are where will you stand on those issues of importance to our neighborhoods and to our families.

We've also prepared for our members our legislative agenda, so they are thinking about what the issues are. I have these for everyone here participating and those that are participating from afar, we will make these available at our website at naacp.org. That's www.naacp.org.

We also have for those who are interested in how those running for President and other offices for reelection very well voted in the past. The NAACP has graded the U.S. Congress -- all 435 voting members of the house and 100 voting members of the Senate, since 1914, as a matter of fact. I wasn't here quite that long, but I have the responsibility of doing that now for the last 10 years that I'm quite excited about.

This is the mid-term assessment for the 110th Congress. That is, how they voted in the year 2007 on issues that were crucial to our communities, and you have that as well, including how the presidential candidates voted on those issues.

You have a document that shows you the structure by organization, our membership structure throughout the United States, where our membership units are located, our regional structure and those kind of things as you prepare to ask your questions along those lines.

And finally, I hope you will take a look at this document. This is a candidates questionnaire that was sent to every presidential candidate participating in the election. We sent this to every candidate back in August of 2007. Sadly, the only two candidates that responded to our questionnaire between August and the present day are Mr. Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. So very well, all that information is here. You can see side by side what they said in response to these issues that were important to them enough to at least fill out the questionnaire and share that information for us.

We are expecting a tremendous turnout. What we have seen thus far, as you look at the primaries that have taken place and the caucuses is the African American community is mobilized and actively engaged like never before. That progression from 2000 to 2004, 2004, even looking at 2006 as a marker the African American community, and today as we prepare for those in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia to go to the polls, we're expecting record turnouts to show how committed they are to making sure that this President is the right President for all their concerns.

And with that, I'll stop and look forward to your questions.

MR. MORRIS: Good morning. As a professor, I am allowed to digress from the pressures of immediate electoral reality, at least in my opening remarks. I'll try to be more concrete during the question-and-answer period.

But with digression, I would like to note that in my view, we are on the verge, and I have to say verge, of a sea change in the ideological spectrum of party debates represented by the current choice of candidates. And that is not focused simply, though importantly represented by -- not focused simply -- on the race/gender issue. The novelty of having Senators Clinton and Obama in the race do symbolize something. But I think the change has -- is only indirectly reflected in that.

I think it is exhibited by the difference in the debate in the Republican party and the Democratic party today, where issues are viewed at almost ideological extremes, on the question of the war in Iraq, on national security, on federal responsibility for housing, on economic intervention by the federal government and perhaps, most strongly, by national health care policy where one takes what might be considered a traditional leftist view, and proudly so, and the other takes a very conservative view, one that was unheard in 2004 and 2000 as the center of national debate. But rather, there was a kind of pragmatic division.

I explain this by looking back a little and suggesting that what some have called the Reagan revolution, others have called it the Reagan devolution, a change in party politics meant that the Republican party took on an ideologically coherent, conservative focus that changed the nature of party politics; whereas, the Democratic party remained fairly pragmatic. Along with that conservative focus, blacks were excluded from the center of debate within the Republican party, black issues were, because largely those reflected at a minimum government intervention.

So party pragmatism had characterized, in my view, the imbalance of the debate in 2000 and 2004. But this year, the Democrats have just accepted a distinctly leftist view in the focus of the debate, whether it is Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or any of the others who have dropped out. There is none of this taking a universalistic view about the range of ideological divisions as exhibited by the war.

Along with that comes the peculiar role of African Americans in the Democratic party. Ideologically, given the voting choices of black voters over the years, they have been effectively excluded from the Republican party since the 1980s in any significant way in terms of the choices expressed by any range of opinion sampling. So that when it comes to votes in primaries, their votes represent a minimum of a third and in some cases in some states half of the electorate that is making the choice. Which means that the choices between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are choices not just between black and white or man and woman but also between people who can represent this historically left-leaning range.

So today, I think we are looking at a chance to face our divisions in ways that are more direct than pragmatic party politics would have permitted. Why do I think that's occurring today? If you look back at electoral history, this singular, non-ideological division between the parties, goes back to the end of the Civil War. A bit of an historical leap, but it's an important one. Because in that period, racial divisions represented a range of labor-related and other divisions that might have brought more ideologically and narrowly focused parties into existence.

As these divisions declined in the public spectrum, the vividness of economic divisions, the vividness of national responsibilities, the vividness of a lot of things that have been of particular concern to African Americans on the left resurface. And along with the continuing presence, if not the weakness, of that strong ideological right, we face a kind of focused fundamental debate over choices that we haven't seen for a number of years. And I think that helps to define what we are looking at today, though we see it only in the symbols of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, black man, white woman, versus an unidentifiable conservative, or would-be more conservative white male candidate. But I think the emphasis should be on the things they represent in terms of national choices rather than on the individuals, per se, as we look at this election. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hello. My name is Daniel Anyz, I'm with Czech (inaudible) Hospodarske Noviny. I wonder why the -- what I call the Afro-American political establishment like Al Sharpton have this trouble to support Barack Obama? And whether you aren't afraid that after this election, whatever the result will be, the political establishment will be divided between the new and old?

MR. MORRIS: Well, I am certain that Reverend Sharpton would be amused to hear himself referred to as the political establishment. But if you look carefully at black voting, if that's what you're referring to, it has never cohered simply around an individual. There are many congressional elections in which blacks have voted for people who they thought represented their interests. Sharpton is from New York. Sharpton felt that the -- apparently felt that the Clintons represented a coherent set of progressive views on social policy, where blacks had already stated a strong position.

I think that, as with any individual competition, where there was Jesse Jackson in '84, you will see divisions in the individual -- in the individuals, but you see Jesse Jackson today aligned with many of the civil rights leaders who did not support him in '84, though they did come around in '88.

So this does not harbinger any great segmentation in the black vote. It simply, to my mind, represents a clarity about that progressive agenda that really has defined the black vote.

MR. SHELTON: In addition to sounding redundant, and in addition to agreeing with everything Dr. Morris has said, I think Reverend Sharpton made it very clear at the very beginning of the season that he would decide later whether he would run for President. He would look very closely at where Mrs. Clinton -- I think he shared that information very, very clearly. But he would also be looking very carefully at Barack Obama to see if, indeed, they lifted up the issues that he thought were very important to this election cycle and to the people across our country.

I think that, from what I've heard, he is satisfied that the issues are being raised in the way they should be and felt that, indeed, with that he had no reason to get into the race.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is for both of you. I'm Mike Kellerman with ATN-TV.

These Chesapeake primaries coming up in the next -- tomorrow, isn't it -- I've heard that African Americans are going to make the big difference, D.C., of course, going probably for Barack and the other two states as well. Are black people actually having a major role and will they make that much difference in the close race between Hillary and Barack, you think for the nomination?

I mean, it appears that they are playing a bigger role amongst the Democrats in this Democratic spat, than they've ever done in the past. Can you comment on that, please?

MR. SHELTON: I can start by at least saying that African Americans have always been a substantially important demographic within the Democratic party. That very well, when we look at the kind of percentages that any Democratic candidate receives, of course, not only as we look towards the primaries but certainly the general election, we know that Bush was only able to pull in 2000, I believe it was 9 percent of the African American vote and in 2004, 11 percent of the African American vote.

But we also noticed as we moved from 2000 to 2004, that the African American vote overall increased significantly. Giving a lot of credit again to the issue I raised earlier about young African Americans being actively engaged in the process.

We know that Hillary and Barack both count on the African American community for their support base. The Clintons, of course, not only through their years in the White House but certainly their years even in Arkansas. As I talked to our Arkansas people, we have a very active Arkansas state conference as well as the local branches throughout the state, we are very happy with the great work that Hillary Clinton did in Arkansas, serving not only as the First Lady of Arkansas, but also the great work she did with the Children's Defense Fund. So very clearly, that is a very important base and always has been for Hillary Clinton and the Clinton family, period.

Barack Obama is in very much the same position. His support in Illinois as he ran for the senator for Illinois was very heavily African American. Among others, too. The diversity was impressive. Quite frankly, you can't win Illinois without the African American community's support in northern Illinois for a Democrat, that's very clear. We also know that very clearly, as they are looking ahead, whoever is going to be the candidate for the Democratic party, it is going to be very deeply dependent on a strong African American community turnout to win the election nationwide. Every election that we have seen in recent history has required a strong African American support to take the Democrats over the top.

MR. MORRIS: Let me just highlight a couple of points from there. Hillary Clinton recently mentioned Lyndon Baines Johnson as a symbol of someone supportive of the civil rights agenda. There's a good reason for that, even if it wasn't on her mind. No Democratic President since Roosevelt has been elected with a white vote, except for Johnson. They -- all others would not have gotten in the White House -- none of the others would have gotten in the White House without -- on the basis of a white vote.

Why? Blacks make up 12 percent of the population but 25 to 30 percent of the Democratic party. States like Maryland are 30 percent black. If you double that proportion in the Democratic party, you see why they are going to make such a difference. It's statistical; they become the majority or near majority.

Virginia is 19 -- 20 percent black. Double that, as members of the Democratic party, because again, for intents and purposes, many of them view the Republican party as closed in some of these states -- view it that way -- 40 percent.

And D.C., well, blacks are already 55 percent of the population. So, needless to say, in primaries tomorrow, if the agenda is held more closely as far as blacks are concerned by Barack Obama than Hillary, then he'll do better. But I don't think it will be an absolute sweep because many of them will think that she holds a large part of that agenda.

QUESTION: Thank you. I am Vladimir Kara-Murza with RTVI, Russian television.

You did mention that obviously a small proportion African American electorate chooses the Republican party. But of those who do, do you have any indication which candidate the majority of African American Republicans favor?

MR. SHELTON: For an interesting set of reasons, there isn't as much data along those lines. But early indication is that they are leaning more towards Mr. McCain. His record on Capitol Hill as being someone who has been rather a maverick on many issues, has actually split from the Republican party on a number of key votes that have been important to the African American community. Whether it was budgets or indeed whether it was other issues of social justice concerns and other issues supporting even traditional civil rights issues, McCain is someone that I think African Americans in the Republican party have been very supportive of.

As we move forward, it will be very interesting to see if Mr. Huckabee pulls more African American votes as he moves throughout the south. But so far, we have seen nothing to indicate anything along those lines.

MODERATOR: Go ahead with your question, please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. SHELTON: Early on, I think the Clintons had a huge organization at the state and local level. And I was a bit surprised, as I suppose many were, by Barack Obama's success in Iowa. But I would not have been surprised, had I paid attention to the level of organizing at the state level. People got to know him and know who he was. The Clintons were known but known from a distance.

Basically, I'll put it this way. How many voters could have spelled Obama a few months ago? They got a chance to see him up close and the media helped with his television presence.

But also along with the money came the ability to organize at the grassroots level. And just as certainly the decline in funding for the Clinton campaign meant that they were less able to mobilize regularly on the grassroots level. I think that the resignation in the past few days of Hillary Clinton's campaign director may reflect a recognition that organizational weaknesses are significant. The candidates may have a different level of preference for each of the voters, but ultimately I think the change had to do with Barack Obama becoming known and developing organization.

MR. MORRIS: I would pretty much repeat the same thing about being known. I'm someone that gets to study both of their voting records, the kind of initiatives they launched here on Capitol Hill, both since Mrs. Clinton became a senator as well as since Mr. Obama became a senator.

And what we have seen with both of them is they vote extremely well on the NAACP's legislative agenda. I think many African Americans had to get to know Barack Obama as they have come to know Hillary Clinton and certainly her husband, Bill Clinton. As you know, many people still joke tongue in cheek about Bill Clinton being the first African American President in the United States, of course understanding that he wasn't, but the issues and the openness to the African American community, in support and ability to really reconcile with the African American community is something that proved to be very, very helpful.

We have seen that as people have gotten to know Barack Obama better, they certainly from the African American community perspective, we know that just because a candidate happens to be African American does not make them someone we would support. As you remember very well, Barack Obama ran in Illinois against a candidate who was also African American that was trounced tremendously, and that was Alan Keyes.

We also know that in the back of most of our minds when we think about federal issues, we're also thinking about the African American who happens to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court as someone that has very little to no support from the African American community overall. So indeed, looking very carefully at this candidate, seeing if this candidate represents the values, perspectives and vision that most African Americans for our country and for their communities and their families for that matter is something that's brought them around on Barack Obama.

And I do have to say that he did borrow a playbook from Mr. Kerry's plan for Iowa, coming in very strong, running very hard, very comprehensively, reaching out, every nook and cranny, the universities, African American communities that have been ignored and other poor communities, farmers. He pushed very hard, he did a door-to-door, person-to-person, handshaking campaign process that got him the kind of support that's absolutely necessary to be successful in that caucus atmosphere.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is Sonia Schott with Radio Valera Venezuela.

From the beginning, both candidates say -- they're saying that it's not about -- this election is not about gender or racial issues. So I would like to know what kind of impact does it have, male or female voters, among African American community? And more than that, Mr. Barack Obama said he is trying to unify the country. What kind of impact does this message will have among African American community? Thank you.

MR. MORRIS: He mentioned the reference to the Clinton predecessor as the first black. I am reminded of that only because Toni Morrison, one of our better known writers, made that statement apparently. But she wrote a letter to Barack Obama recently in the past few days endorsing him. And she said, I'm not impressed by Hillary's gender and I'm not impressed by your race. This is to Barack Obama. She said, I'm not impressed by your race, doesn't move me at all. And I still like what Hillary Clinton has to say, or something to that effect. But I think from your message, you're on the verge of creating a revolutionary change in our perspective.

Whether that is true or not, I would certainly not like to suggest. But I think his style, his language and his ability to appeal to a -- across a spectrum of demographics makes African American voters, as well as white voters, but some African American voters, particularly, feel that he is capable of setting an agenda. I think the Kennedys thought, perhaps wrongly for Massachusetts, that that Camelot appeal helped to set an agenda. That doesn't mean that, like LBJ, you change the world. But it does mean that people feel in times of, you know, declining situations economically and elsewhere that they want somebody who has a kind of special appeal beyond the presidential function itself.

And I think that, to some extent, that when you ask does his race stand out, I still think it is only that knowledge of appeal that comes from movements, politics, that knowledge of his having focused on it even if he didn't live it -- and you see it in his presentation. If you could blend, modernize some of the speeches of King and with many other civil rights leaders, Fannie Lou Hamer, he frequently uses language that reflects her as you will see that kind of style and movement that reflects a better part of a successful change in the civil rights agenda imposed on the nation, one that needs to be developed. And I think that's why there's a response.

MODERATOR: We have another question in New York. New York, go ahead, please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) -- Hillary, I'm talking about Democrats that are in New York City or I guess maybe in the United States in general, but -- (inaudible)?

MR. SHELTON: I'm not sure I'm the best person to answer that question. The NAACP doesn't endorse candidates or political parties. But I think that very clearly what's being seen is that people are voting their interests. African Americans have always voted our economic interests, what's in our best interests. Most African Americans were Republicans, as we came out of the slavery challenge in our society. It wasn't until the New Deal that we started seeing significant African Americans voting more Democratic. As they looked at Abraham Lincoln being the Republican that freed them, ended the slavery movement in the United States, and allowed us to enter -- or exit slavery. Those policies didn't allow us to enter the mainstream of society. And so very well, they're looking at those who are reflecting those economic interests.

What we are seeing across the board is the message coming from Barack Obama now is resonating very broadly, the African American community, when he talks about his perspective of having been an organizer in inner city Chicago, predominantly African American communities, having served as a civil rights lawyer and a professor of civil rights at a law school in Chicago and then moving beyond that to what he has done on Capitol Hill since he has been a U.S. senator is something, as people begin looking very closely at his record, see him as somebody who is doing very well.

Then the other key is we look at how you gauge any candidate running for the presidency. The key issues you're looking at as you begin the process is certainly what their agenda is. But also you are looking at other indicators of how that agenda is resonating. Issues like how is it resonating in the polls? And what we have seen throughout this entire process is that Barack Obama has done very, very well in the polls, gone neck and neck with Hillary Clinton, someone who was almost presumed to be the candidate for the Democratic party.

If you look at issues of having to raise money, we know that Barack Obama has more than proven himself in his ability to raise money, to run a first-rate campaign. And as such, he has been winning tremendously in primaries where he was not expected to do very well.

I think that people have to simply vote what their hearts' content is, what's on their minds they think is going to be in the best interest of the country. The great thing is that everyone, even for those who are nonpartisan, are happening to see that the issue that is resonating most is the need for change in the United States.

MODERATOR: We are going to have to end there, we are running out of time. I would like to thank our speakers today. Both Mr. Shelton and Mr. Morris have some extra time for questions and will be available in our front lobby.

Thank you.


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