With the presidential primary season now moving into high gear, how do African Americans rate the current crop of candidates?
According to a survey conducted recently by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, with support from the AARP, Black voters want change – and they believe Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are the most likely to deliver it.
The results of this poll – which is the most comprehensive effort to determine the political preferences of Black voters – show that African Americans are paying close attention to the presidential campaigns and the positions of the candidates. Eighty percent of likely primary voters said they are closely following news coverage of their party's candidates and two-thirds said they are extremely likely to participate in the upcoming primaries and caucuses.
As for the favorite candidates of Black voters, senators Clinton and Obama are in a category of their own, with Clinton being viewed favorably by 83 percent and Obama by 74 percent. Among a total of eight candidates mentioned to survey respondents, only Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards received higher favorable than unfavorable ratings, with Edwards being rated positively by 45.1 percent.
Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the best known of the Republican candidates to Black likely primary voters, but was viewed unfavorably by 42.7 percent, compared to 27.1 percent who viewed him favorably.
So, if you look at this as a two-person race for the Black vote, why does Sen. Clinton seem to fare better with African American voters than Sen. Obama, who thus far is arguably the most successful Black presidential candidate in the nation's history?
On one hand, Sen. Clinton is likely benefiting from long experience in the public arena – not to mention her association with an administration that was highly regarded by African Americans and during which time Black income increased significantly.
Indeed, the Joint Center's poll shows more respondents named Clinton over Obama as having the best position of the Democratic candidates on three key issues of concern – affordable health care (47.3 percent to 18.7 percent), strengthening Social Security (41 percent to 18.6 percent) and, by a narrower margin, on dealing with Iraq (35.4 percent to 22.1 percent).
But that's not necessarily to say that Sen. Obama is missing out on opportunities to get the Black vote in the upcoming primaries. Indeed, the poll shows his favorability rating among African Americans is excellent – though not quite as high as Sen. Clinton's – especially for someone who is a relatively new face on the political scene.
What's more, by a two-to-one margin, respondents said that "commitment to change" was a more important attribute in a candidate than "experience in public office" – a view that could be seen as helpful to Sen. Obama's candidacy.
And when asked to name the single most important problem facing the country, the No. 1 answer was the war in Iraq, which was cited by 28 percent of respondents, followed by health care (20 percent), jobs and the economy (15 percent) and education (10 percent). None of the Black voters polled identified taxes as the most important national problem, less than one percent named immigration and two percent said terrorism.
Given that the lowest-ranked concerns are among the signature issues of the Republican Party, it is not surprising that 87 percent of those surveyed said they intend to participate in the Democratic Party's nominating process. Additionally, it appears that the term "conservative" has lost some of its brand among Blacks. In Joint Center surveys of Black adults conducted in the late 1990s, between 35 and 40 percent described themselves as conservative in their political orientation. In this latest poll, that figure has dropped to 21 percent, with 41 percent describing themselves as liberals and 36 percent as moderates.
All of this points to high motivation among African American voters as we head to November 2008. But between now and then is the party nominating process, and it will be interesting to see which candidate ultimately lays claim to the Black vote.
Ralph B. Everett is the president and CEO of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research and public policy institution whose work focuses exclusively on issues of particular concern to African Americans and other people of color.