Two days before the presidential election, Ingrid Holmes walked into the Greater Grant African Methodist Episcopal Church to hear John Edwards’s pitch. Not that she was on the fence.
“I just feel like after 2000, with the economy, the war, and everything, [Bush] needs to go,” said Holmes. In 2000, some 27,000 votes were thrown out in Jacksonville, many of them cast by black voters who had mistakenly punched the names of two candidates instead of one.
Before Edwards took the mic, the pastor admonished nonbelievers—the press corps, bused in for the occasion—as easily as he admonished his own flock. “Many have forgotten what happened four years ago,” the reverend said.
He then urged his parishioners to the polling places for early voting immediately after the service, and introduced vice presidential candidate Edwards as a modern-day Nehemiah. In his speech, the Democrat hammered on exactly the issues Holmes listed, attacking Bush’s handling of the war, the loss of jobs, and the cost of health care. “I thought he was impressive,” said Holmes, who has never voted Republican. “I thought he said just what I wanted to hear.”
And on so many standard themes, that makes sense. But in another way, it’s surprising, because Holmes, according to most post-election analyses, is exactly the sort of voter who went for George Bush. She attends church every Sunday, is lukewarm on abortion rights, and opposes gay marriage. Yet like most black voters last Election Day, and unlike so many white Americans, Holmes seemed poised to keep her religious views out of politics—or at least out of presidential politics. While African Americans in several states voted to ban gay marriage, they also voted overwhelmingly against George Bush.
Already the pundits are crafting a simplistic narrative for election 2004—it was the evangelicals who returned Bush to the White House, the Bible-thumpers at war with the secular Northeast. Except in black America, where Bush (at least according to exit polls) received 11 percent of the vote—3 percent more than in 2000, but still paltry.
A few weeks before the election, David Bositis, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, made headlines when he predicted that Bush would get 18 percent of the black vote. “I didn’t say it was definite,” said Bositis. “I said it was possible, and all the newspapers ran with it.”
But Bositis may have been onto something. It would seem only right that a president whose calling card is faith and morals would strike a chord in the deeply religious black community. But Bositis underestimated one factor—residual anger from 2000. Despite the religious convictions of many Southern black communities, in Florida, black voters seemed squarely focused on revenge.
On Election Day, 28-year-old Elliot Hayes skipped his local voting precinct and showed up at the Supervisor of Elections office downtown, where all eligible Jacksonville voters could cast a ballot. The line snaking around the central office included voters of all races. Hayes, who waited for two hours, said he’d come down here to ensure that his ballot against Bush would not turn up missing. “I want to make sure we get Bush out,” said Hayes. “I decided I’d go right to the source this time and not take any chances.”
Local and national activists sang a similar tune. On Election Day, minivans crisscrossed North Jacksonville, offering free rides to the polls. Canvassers went door-to-door reminding people about early balloting. Often they found that locals had already voted, and almost as often these voters cited Gore 2000, and the 27,000 lost votes.
For those black Floridians tempted by Bush’s morality play, the Human Rights Campaign ran spots on black radio. In the commercials, a sassy black woman implored African Americans not to allow the religious right to distract the community from the failures of the war and anemic growth in jobs. “Let’s check these conservatives,” the voice asserted.
Most black voters across the country followed that line—except perhaps for where it mattered most. “The one place where I wasn’t wrong was Ohio,” said Bositis. “Bush got 16 percent of the black vote.” That’s not a staggering number in and of itself, but in the state where everything ultimately hung in the balance it was critical. Bush doubled his black support in Ohio from 2000, with this year’s total likely aided by a ballot measure to ban gay marriage. More than 60 percent of black voters cast ballots in favor of the ban.
“The same strategy that the civil rights leaders used is now being used against them,” said Mike Paul, a black political strategist who has worked with Democrats and Republicans. “For every person who says, ‘They owe you a job’ and inflames people to vote, now there is someone with an issue that is just as inflaming—’You need to get back to the Bible.’ We’re not saying vote by party, we’re saying vote by issues—gay marriage, abortion.”
There was no such measure on the Florida ballot, where Bush garnered 13 percent of the black vote—not as much as in Ohio, but still higher than his national average. There also was the problem of branding. No one interviewed was willing to accept the handle of “conservative,” despite where their views placed them on the spectrum of politics. “I’m a believer and so I’m not for gay marriage,” said Roy Haynesworth, having just cast a ballot for Kerry at the Northside Church of Christ. “I do think that people should stand on their own two feet. But I also think the government can help those people who are having trouble standing when times are really rough.”
In this era of partisanship, African Americans are a weird amalgam—a group that is fundamentally socially conservative, yet hates the Republican Party.
For years, this paradox has endured to the Democrats’ favor—but don’t count on its being eternal. The coalitions that make up political parties shift constantly. The South, with its trove of white working-class votes, was once a fortress for the Democrats, but now it’s solidly Republican. The Democrats’ black base is no different. Post-Abraham Lincoln, African Americans voted Republican. Post-Franklin Delano Roosevelt, they voted Democrat. Just like that.
In the 1980s and ’90s, many of the issues Republicans rallied around—affirmative action, crime, welfare reform—seemed like code words for racist positions. But this time, as the cultural divide widens again, the issue is gay marriage. Much of black America is either Southern or has Southern roots. As Republicans make their traditionalist pitch, why wouldn’t a significant portion of intrigued black voters—call them McCain Republicans—eventually be swept into the fray?
“These issues aren’t going away,” said Paul. “The church movement is only going to grow in the black community. They have a simple message: ‘Come back to the Bible. Come back home.’ “