In a presidential election with razor thin margins, it all could come down to women. With women now comprising 60 percent of "undecideds," the scramble is on to find the subgroup with the biggest swing. A media briefing hosted by Planned Parenthood in Washington last week (and available by phone to the rest of us) highlighted that search, as a panel of pollsters debated whether "soccer moms," "security moms" or "waitress moms" will determine the outcome on Nov. 2.
But for one group of women that's historically been important to the Democratic Party, it's not just the candidates that are a question mark--it's faith in democracy.
"Over a third of African-American women don't have a lot of confidence in the voting process," said Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies. "What's at stake in this election is not just issues, but their belief in the democratic system."
Belcher's group does surveys for Democratic Party activists. He was the only one of four pollsters on the Oct. 19 panel to focus on African-American women. (The lone Republican pollster, Lori Wiegel, presented surveys done with white women only. "As go white women, so goes the election," said one of her slides.)
When it comes to faith in the system, recent polling by Belcher's firm found 37 percent of African-American women were "not too confident" or "not at all confident" about the voting process. Only 18 percent of those surveyed were "very confident" about the process, while 41 percent were "somewhat confident."
Belcher traced such sentiments to "residue that lingers from 2000" when many black voters were purged from the rolls in Florida and objections raised by black Congressional leaders were ignored by the Senate.
Despite their doubts, the number of African-American women who plan to cast ballots this election is on the rise, Belcher said. Eighty-nine percent of black women surveyed in July said they were "very likely" to vote, while only 2 percent said they were "not that likely."
Belcher said the reason for this surge in interest can be summed up in three words: George Walker Bush. The president's job approval rating among African-American women was a dismal 9 percent in September, Brilliant Corners found, down from 35 percent in 2002. Eighty-five percent of African-American women surveyed said they disapprove of Bush's job performance.
By contrast, 66 percent of black women surveyed gave John Kerry a favorable rating, compared to only 9 percent who gave him an unfavorable rating. Polling by Belcher's firm found that if the presidential vote were held in September, 88 percent of African-American women would vote for John Kerry compared to 6 percent for George Bush.
On issues, the war in Iraq was a top concern for African-American women, followed closely by the economy and jobs. In fact, among those surveyed, those issues were linked, Belcher said. "The way African-American women talk about the [war] issue, it's the African-American community versus Iraq. Money is being spent overseas that could be spent here. And they take issue with that." Only 10 percent of black women surveyed said terrorism and homeland security were their top concerns in this election.
Two local political observers saw slightly different messages when asked about the African-American vote.
"Don't put too much stock in the polls," said Elaine Yarborough, associate professor of political science at Shaw University. "They don't always reach everybody. I think there will be some surprises."
Two weeks ago, she took part in a march to early-vote sites organized by students at N.C. Central University. "At 3:15 in the afternoon, I was voter number 309," Yarborough said. "African Americans are really turning out for early voting. I think we're going to see a large increase in the number of people participating."
Cynthia Brown, a former Durham City Council member and candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2002, sees good reason for African-American women--and others--to lack confidence in the political system. "There are a lot of average, working-class people who want to engage," she said. "But politics has gotten so far removed from the people. That's why we're in trouble."
Still, she agrees that turnout will be high. "I think a lot of folk are burned up about 2000 but they are also terrified of what will happen if Bush wins," said Brown, who recently helped form the North Carolina Coalition on Black Civic Participation. "What I see is that we should stop doing all this mobilization just at election time and do it on an ongoing basis. That's what I see as base building." x
For more information on Brilliant Corners polls go to: www.plannedparenthood.org/about/pr/-041019-election.html.