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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Poll: Every midterm goodbye ain’t gone

Voters generally don’t turn out in big numbers for the midterm races, especially black and minority voters. For the conservatives and for many political analysts and professional pol-watchers, that’s been not so much a talking point of the 2010 campaign debate as holy writ. The Republicans and their proxies with blogs and microphones in the wider world, have been relying on that historically proven assumption, counting on it as they ramp up their strategies for retaking the Congress in November.

They may want to retool their efforts: A newly released poll suggests — convincingly — that among those black and minority voters, past performance in the midterm part of the election cycle need not be a guarantee of future results.

According to the poll conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, about two-thirds of black adults in four states with Senate races in the fall say they’re watching the political scene, and monitoring analysis about the fall elections, and between 74 percent and 80 percent said they’re very likely to go to the polls in November.

The nonpartisan D.C.-based organization, which monitors minority participation in matters of public policy, surveyed 500 black people in Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas and South Carolina. Despite the relatively small sample, its methodology makes sense, given recent events and established political history.

“In many competitive congressional districts, blacks make up a quarter of the electorate, and they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats,” the Associated Press reported Tuesday. “Their surge during President Obama's 2008 victory is widely credited with helping sweep many Democrats into office who might have otherwise lost.”

Dr. David Bositis, a Center researcher and the director of the poll, told The AP that, while the turnout would certainly be lower than poll estimates, the results reflect a continued support for President Obama.

“I think the Obama election and the fact that there is an African-American president is something of a game-changer,” he told AP. “African-Americans feel like they have a real investment in President Obama ... I think it's a major motivating factor.”

“A real investment”? Big time. From the poll: “Nearly all respondents feel favorably toward President Obama. In each of the states surveyed, between 94 and 95 percent of black adults said their feelings toward him were favorable. There has been no public figure in the past 20 years who has elicited such favorable feelings from African Americans. “

Sensibly, black Americans are focused on the economy and health-care reform; the poll found those were the top-tier concerns on the minds of black voters.

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Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University who specializes in African-American politics, had doubts about the poll’s turnout forecast. “One of the things you have to realize with polls is that if you ask people if they're going to vote, people can misrepresent themselves,” she told AP. “Nobody wants to look like a civic deadbeat.”

That’s true enough — and no more or less true today than it was in November 2008, when African Americans turned out in record numbers to elect Barack Obama president. And with health-care reform and jobs hanging in the balance, there’s at least as much at stake this election as the last one. Black Americans got that when the survey was conducted last year, between Nov. 11 and Dec. 1. They certainly understand it better today.

And black and minority voters are more plugged in today than they were in 2008, not less. A late-February survey from the Center found that black Americans and Latinos with college degrees and earning more than $50,000 a year are adopting broadband faster than any other cohorts of the population. About 94 percent of this African American group and 98 percent of the Hispanic group have broadband.

Those voters are more plugged in, they’re more attuned to life and culture, they’re more sophisticated, and more likely to avail themselves of the levers of our democracy. Simply put: they’re better citizens now than they were before, and with as much on the table as is on the table now, there’s no reason on earth to think they’ll walk away from the closest thing to full political empowerment they’ve enjoyed.

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The takeaway? Among other things, the Joint Center poll means that the GOP needs to resist the temptation to go native & go negative, two of the defining characteristics of contemporary Republican strategy.

They need to get focused on enhancing their own message, refining what the GOP has to offer the American people – instead of using the history of midterm voting patterns as the compass heading for its political direction. Past ain’t always prologue.

The Joint Center poll findings also mean that, contrary to some of the more downbeat assessments of Obama’s prospects coming from the punditburo, the president still enjoys the inaugural benefits from black American voters.

It’s not just a honeymoon anymore; almost fourteen months in, there’s a real marriage going on now, with highs and lows. And contrary to what the pundits think and what the conservatives wish, black Americans aren’t really having second thoughts.

Image credits: Logo and chart: Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. President Obama: Still from NBC News.

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