Bush fails to convince majority of black voters

 

George W. Bush began his bid for the presidency committed to making a dent in the deepseated hostility among African Americans to the Republican Party and its candidates.

The Texas governor pleaded with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) to "give me a chance to tell you what's on my heart", while acknowledging that "there is no escaping the reality that the party of Lincoln has not always carried the mantle of Lincoln."

He campaigned with Gen Colin L. Powell and gave prominent speaking roles at the GOP convention to African Americans.

But on Election Day, exit surveys suggested African American voters rejected Mr Bush by 9 to 1, one of the worst records for a Republican presidential candidate in the history of polling.

Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that Mr Bush faces an even more daunting struggle to gain support from black Americans if he wins the presidency because of the dispute over Florida's 25 electoral votes.

Black leaders and voters have voiced outrage over reports that, in relative terms, many more black votes in Florida went uncounted than white votes.

"It isn't helping," said David A. Bositis, senior researcher at the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, referring to the Florida dispute. "Face it, before anything, black attitudes toward the Republican Party were pretty bad."

Mr Bush's performance with black voters this year matched Ronald Reagan's dismal showing in 1984. Barry Goldwater in 1964 was the only GOP presidential nominee to do worse. Political strategists and academic experts said Mr Bush's standing with black voters reflects a degree of hostility to the GOP that rendered ineffective Mr Bush's symbolic and rhetorical appeals in speeches and commercials and at the Republican convention.

Representative Donald M. Payne (D., New Jersey) contended that Mr Bush's efforts to lessen black hostility to the GOP and to his candidacy have backfired.

"The way they had blacks parade across the stage at the convention was almost demeaning," he said. "Then there's his record providing health care to Texas children; his state has a minimum wage of $3.15 an hour, and he picked a vice president [Richard B. Cheney] who had voted against releasing Nelson Mandela from jail. African Americans can see through that. With all these Supreme Court openings possible, those two people, Bush and Cheney, just put fear into the hearts of African Americans."

A spokesman for Mr Bush, Ari Fleischer, sought to play down the severity of the split between Mr Bush and African American voters. Mr Fleischer said Mr Bush remains committed to being "a different kind of Republican" and, once in the White House, said he intends to govern in a fashion that will build confidence among black voters.

If Mr Bush does win the presidency, he is expected to turn prime responsibility for the conduct of US foreign policy to two African Americans, appointing Gen Powell as secretary of state and Condoleeza Rice as national security adviser.

Black Democratic politicians discounted the prospect of these actions as symbolic "window-dressing", although it remains to be seen whether African-American voters would respond more positively.

This year, Mr Bush not only failed to make inroads among African American voters nationwide, but black anger with the GOP also appeared to be heightened by the actions of local GOP leaders in a number of states.

In the battleground of Florida, black turnout grew from 10 per cent of the total in 1996 to 15 per cent in 2000, in effect a 50 per cent increase.

In addition, African Americans in the state voted for Vice President Gore over Mr Bush by 93 to 7 per cent, according to exit polls.

Many analysts have credited the turnout increase to the decision of Governor Jeb Bush (R), Mr Bush's brother, to replace affirmative action in higher education with a "One Florida" plan. "One Florida" eliminated race as a factor in admissions, while giving priority to the top 20 per cent of the graduating classes of all Florida high schools.