Upcoming Presidential Election is Changing the Rules
At the National Urban League's recent annual conference, our presidential candidate's forum illustrated just how difficult the choice for president will be among African Americans of all political affiliations, in light of the strong field of contenders from both sidesof the aisle.
From Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich's impassioned plea for universal health care, to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton's plan to put all the nation's children on the path to success, to Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's idea of holding a White House summit on minority business, to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' ongoing fight against poverty -- all four presidential contenders threw their arms around the Urban League's Opportunity Compact, a public policy blueprint for a stronger urban America. Although no GOP candidates showed up for the presidential forum, there was representation from the Republican Party at our panel discussion on the Black vote. At that session, even GOP strategist Tara Wall lamented the lack of GOP candidates agreeing to appear at our forum.
"I think all the candidates should be here, on both sides," Wall said.
The Rev. Al Sharpton suggested that Republicans may be losing out to Democrats with regards to the Black vote -- not due to lack of appeal but lack of attention.
History has already been made with the first woman, first Black man and first Mormon emerging as serious contenders -- at least on the fundraising front -- for our country's top job. Regardless of outcome, the way our nation views itself will definitely change -- for the better. The field for elected office will more accurately reflect and represent melting pot America, where as early as 2050 no majority ethnic group will exist to dictate the direction of the nation.
The battle for the Black vote has already heated up among the frontrunners for the Democratic nomination, thanks to the fact that some of the party's early primaries will take place in South Carolina and Florida, where up to 50 percent of the Democratic primary electorate is African American.
"We've never seen this number of candidates fight for the Black vote," said Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland political science professor who worked on Rev. Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, to McClatchy Newspapers recently. Former Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y., observed that it shows that Black voters are "still a very strong and viable group that cannot be ignored."
Republicans face a similar test among Hispanics, who have historically favored the GOP in presidential elections but defected to an extent to the Democrats in 2006 congressional elections. What a difference from a few days after Election Day in 2004 when the Washington Post's Jabari Asim characterized the Black vote as the "elephant in the room" among Democrats. In that election year, President George W. Bush received 11 percent of the Black vote, up from 10 percent in 2000.
And just because there's a Black man in the race doesn't mean he has an automatic hold on the African American vote, especially at this point in the campaign.
"Blacks vote for who they want to vote for," Walters said.
Or as Wendell Gilliard, a city councilmember in Charleston, S.C., observed to Reuters recently: "If we've learned any lessons, you shouldn't judge a man by the color of his skin."
If the NUL's presidential forum is any indication, the African American vote is very much at play. According to a CNN poll, Clinton is leading Obama among African Americans in South Carolina -- 47 percent compared to31 percent. Earlier in the year, the New York senator had a substantial 40 percentage point lead over Obama among Blacks nationwide. That lead, however, has since shrunk significantly to one percentage point. Because of the Black vote's importance to Democratic contenders, African Americans are now getting the kind of attention once devoted to soccer moms and NASCAR dads in previous elections. It is obvious that no political party will be able to take the minority vote for granted in the future.
At the NUL, we are not permitted to endorse candidates for political office, but that doesn't mean they cannot endorse us. We want everyone to join the Opportunity Compact bandwagon. That extends to all candidates -- federal, state and local. After all, it takes more than a president to effect change in Washington, D.C.
We must remain diligent in keeping these candidates accountable to their word throughout the election and beyond. The ultimate proof of their commitment will be in the policies they produce in the White House, if they make it there. We also welcome the rest of the field to join our cause for a stronger urban America. It's not too late to step up to the challenge.
This battle will be long and daunting but still well worth the investment in the long run. We encourage all Americans who care about the economic future of their children and grandchildren to help us fight the fight for economic equality, a win-win situation for all.
Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League