It doesn’t take an inside tip to figure out which voters Bill Bradley has his eyes on this week.
On Sunday he appeared at a prominent black church in New York City. On Monday he flew to Tampa, Fla., to denounce Gov. Jeb Bush’s initiative to end affirmative action in the state. And on Tuesday he delivered an impassioned speech at historically black Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., denouncing the state for continuing to fly the Confederate battle flag over its Capitol. He finished his day Tuesday at a town meeting in Ohio scheduled to focus on “diversity.”
Racial reconciliation has always been a central theme in Bradley’s campaign against Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination. But Bradley’s intensified focus on racial issues reflects a critical political reality too: Minority voters are about to make their presence felt in the Democratic race. In a big way.
Gore and Bradley held their first battles in states that were virtually all-white: Iowa and New Hampshire. But African Americans and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Latinos, constitute a critical share of the vote in most of the large states that vote on March 7, date of the next Democratic primaries.
In Georgia and Maryland, blacks cast about one-third of the total Democratic vote. In Ohio and Missouri, the figure ranges from 15% to 20%. In New York and California, blacks and Latinos have grown to become at least a quarter of the primary vote.
Gore’s High Standing in Minority Polls
Later in March come Michigan and Illinois and Southern states like Texas and Louisiana, where blacks also cast a major share of the Democratic vote.
Unless Bradley can undermine Gore’s high standing in early polls of minorities, those voters loom as a huge barrier in his uphill climb to catch Gore. Even if Bradley continues to run well with upscale white voters--as he did in New Hampshire--he is unlikely to overtake Gore in these other states unless he can attract more minorities.
And Bradley has a lot of ground to cover, especially with African Americans. In every major state where a public poll has been conducted recently, Gore holds commanding leads over Bradley among black Democrats.
Surveys taken in January in Illinois and Texas gave Gore 70% or more of the black vote; in Ohio, he was attracting 60%. Even in New York, one of Bradley’s strongest states, the most recent public survey gave Gore a nearly 3-to-1 lead among African Americans. In a California Field Poll released Monday, Gore drew over 60% of the minority vote. Those advantages helped Gore lead overall in each of those states.
Nothing better illustrated blacks’ potential influence more than an early January survey in Maryland. In the poll, Bradley led Gore among white voters by double digits--but the vice president drew 70% of blacks and led overall by 8 percentage points.
“Bradley’s been talking about race almost from the very beginning of his campaign, and he’s made absolutely no inroads with blacks whatsoever,” said David Bositis, a senior political analyst for the Joint Center for Political Studies, a Washington think tank that follows issues affecting African Americans. “I have yet to see a single thing that Bill Bradley has done that would change that; and I can’t even imagine what he would do to change that.”
Bositis and other experts cite several reasons for Gore’s strong hold on blacks. One is the vice president’s own efforts.
As chairman of an administration panel coordinating urban policy, Gore has assiduously built relationships with black mayors and members of Congress. The result is that he’s attracted a virtually united front of endorsements from African American elected officials, including mayors such as Cleveland’s Michael White and Atlanta’s Bill Campbell, and Congressional Black Caucus leaders like John Lewis of Georgia and Charles B. Rangel of New York. Likewise, most leading Latino elected officials, such as California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas are with Gore.
But most analysts believe that President Clinton’s popularity in the black community constitutes the bedrock of Gore’s own support. In the most recent national Times poll, fully 88% of black voters said they approved of Clinton’s job performance. Recent polls in Ohio and Illinois put the black approval rating for Clinton at 84% and 91%, respectively.
“Gore is Clinton’s guy and these voters are solid with Clinton,” says Nick Panagakis, whose firm polls for the Chicago Tribune in Illinois.
In building that loyalty, Bositis said, Clinton’s principal asset has been his economic record. Black unemployment last year was at the lowest level ever recorded; so was poverty among African Americans. On the other side, black homeownership is at an all-time high.
That affinity for Clinton has put Bradley in a difficult position as he tries to expand from his beachhead among better-educated, less partisan, white voters. Bradley is hoping to dislodge Democrats disillusioned with Clinton by escalating his attacks on the administration’s ethical record, particularly the financing scandals of the 1996 campaign.
But in doing so, Bositis notes, Bradley risks sparking a backlash. “I can’t think of any more losing formula with African Americans, and to a similar degree with Latinos . . . than criticizing Clinton,” he said.
But Bradley still sees cracks in the wall that he can exploit.
Several of Bradley’s campaign priorities could provide disproportionate benefits to minorities. Blacks, and especially Latinos, are far more likely than whites to lack health insurance--which could make them receptive to Bradley’s proposal to expand health care coverage. Likewise, notwithstanding the recent declines in poverty among blacks, fully one-fourth of African Americans overall--and nearly 37% of black children--are poor. (Among Latinos, the comparable figures are 26% for adults, and 34% for children.) Bradley has also stressed proposals--from expanding subsidies for child care, to raising the minimum wage--meant to reduce childhood poverty.
“I haven’t had any African Americans come up to me and say, ‘Don’t do health care, don’t try to eliminate child poverty,’ ” Bradley said in a brief interview with The Times on Tuesday. “People say you shouldn’t do something because you might not have support, but that’s what leadership’s all about, to gain the support.”
In tone, as much as substance, Bradley has tried to position himself slightly to Gore’s left on issues with sharp racial overtones. For instance, Bradley has repeatedly criticized the 1996 welfare reform legislation signed by Clinton, which many black leaders opposed at the time. Bradley has also lashed Clinton for failing to issue an executive order barring federal law enforcement from using “racial profiling.”
Embracing the Rev. Al Sharpton
Bradley has also been far more willing than Gore to embrace the Rev. Al Sharpton, a controversial African American activist in New York City who’s been involved in racially polarizing incidents over the last decade. On Tuesday, Bradley announced he had appointed Jacques DeGraff, the campaign manager for Sharpton’s mayoral bid, as a deputy campaign manager.
But in courting minorities, Bradley himself seems to place less weight on any of these issues than on his broader message of encouraging racial reconciliation.
On Tuesday, for instance, he fiercely denounced not only South Carolina for flying the Confederate flag, but the leading GOP presidential contenders for refusing to condemn it. Both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain have refused to express a position on the controversy, terming it a local matter.
“That flag shows the true colors of the Republicans who want to be president,” Bradley insisted Tuesday at Benedict College. “Both George Bush and John McCain have embraced narrow political expediency . . . in an effort to bottom fish for votes from the most right-wing elements of the Republican Party.”
Bradley’s speech drew repeated standing ovations from the students. Yet even that applause illuminated his dilemma: Afterward several students said that, although they liked Bradley, they gave Clinton high grades and intended to support Gore.
Times staff writers Janet Wilson and Matea Gold contributed to this story.