Cornell Belcher and Donna Brazile's Memo On African American turnout in the 2002 elections

Our base voter precinct analysis from the 2002 elections indicates continuity in the off-year turnout patterns of African American voters in the battleground states. Our analysis of majority African American precincts forces us to conclude that Democratic losses were not in and of itself a direct product of any irregular downward trend in the off-year participation patterns of African American voters. However, while there was no overall discernable downward trend, base precinct turnout continues to trail that of non-base precincts, undermining our ability to win close races. We are failing to build upon and expand our base electorate.

The participation rates of African Americans in 2002 are strikingly analogous to past off-years - if not up slightly. However, as is typical of every off-year, turnout in base precincts continues to trail that of non-base precincts and thus Democrats continue to fail to realize opportunities to expand it's base and change the face of the electorate to our benefit. Very shortly, in order to win close races and advance a pro-working families agenda, Democrats and progressives will be forced to spend time and resources engaging the fastest growing segment of potential base voters - African Americans under age 40.

The base voter polling we conducted three weeks out from the election along with the customary base turnout patterns this memo reveals, divulges both opportunities and challenges for Democrats as it relates to base voters in 2003 and 2004. Preeminent among those challenges are Republican messaging to Democratic base voters. Republicans have in fact unveiled in this off-year, a base voter suppression communication blueprint for 2004 that resonates well with weaker voting African Americans.

On the heels of their unprecedented African American communications effort, where they fielded a Black radio communications project nationally geared toward African American voters, Republicans are well-positioning themselves to suppress the turnout of African American voters via their specific negative attacks asserting that African Americans are taking for granted and Democrats are out of touch with the values of the community. Unfortunately, many of the post election headlines by "Black leaders" criticizing the Party's efforts will find there way into Republican Black communications in the 2004 cycle, further helping Republicans dissuade African Americans from voting.

While base voter participation patterns in 2002 showed strong signs of consistency, continuity and expansion will be challenging in 2003 and particularly in 2004. In the face of the Republican suppression strategy, we will be challenged in 2004 to move younger and weaker self identifying Democratic African Americans to vote - a cohort that is increasingly open to Republican negative messaging about Democrats.

Base Turnout Continuity

Precinct samples from four key battleground states where African American voter participation is instrumental to Democrats, illustrates that in fact the base of the Democratic Party turned out at typical off-year rates, if not slightly above expectations. Understand, we are not arguing that African American turnout was satisfactory. In fact base precincts continue to turnout at rates lower than non-base precincts - a consequence of unequal communication resources, hampering our ability to win tough races in swing states. However, we are arguing that those quick to proclaim the base of the Democratic Party was more apathetic this year, lack the evidence to substantiate their agenda. The data indicates that Democrats didn't suffer a drop off in support among African Americans, despite the unprecedented Republican African American communications and field efforts and the highly convoluted nature of the issue environment.

In North Carolina, our statewide examination of over 1,400 majority African American precincts indicates that Erskine Bowles ran at Democratic performance in majority African American precincts (74 percent) and turnout in base precincts ran inline with 1998 turnout (36 percent in 1998 to 35 percent in 2002). However, again turnout in majority minority precincts continued to lag behind that of majority white precincts by 10 points (45 percent to 35 percent).

In Georgia, our examination of precincts in the largest counties points to a stable off year base electorate. Roughly 30 percent of base precinct voters reside in DeKalb. DeKalb base precinct turnout in the off year averages 50.4 percent; actual base precinct turnout was 53 percent

Despite the level of negative attacks on Senator Max Cleland, he still managed to run ahead of Democratic performance in the base: Democratic performance in DeKalb's base precincts is 88.5 percent; Cleland garnered 91 percent of the votes in DeKalb's base precincts. Base precinct turnout in DeKalb ran 3 points behind that of non-base precincts in DeKalb.

In Missouri, roughly 34 percent of all base precinct voters fall within St. Louis. In St. Louis' 12 majority minority wards, turnout ran +7 points ahead of average at 44 percent.

In Arkansas, 30 percent of base voters residing in base precincts are within Pulaski County. Our examination of base precincts in Pulaski indicates no wholesale drop-off of off-year base voters... when we pull 20 base precincts from Pulaski that we are able to match to NCEC data, we can see that turnout was again inline if not slightly up from typical off-year expectations: in the precincts that we examined, turnout was 644 votes higher than expected in the off-year. And it's worth noting that Mark Pryor ran significantly above Democratic performance in the base precincts that we examined (+12 points).

The Base Turnout Challenge for 2003 and 2004

While our polling found that the Republican efforts on Black radio were failing to garner support for Republican candidates in the community and in fact were energizing our strongest supporters and those most inclined to participate in off-year elections, there were signs that the Republican strategy could encumber our efforts to expand turnout by broadly feeding the political cynicism of younger African Americans. Even as African Americans who had heard the ads were supporting Democrats at a higher rate than those who had not, the basic claims in the ads resonated particularly well with younger and drop-off base voters - the voters we need to turnout in the Presidential on-year; the voters we need in order to expand the Democratic electorate.

Sixty-three (63) percent of African Americans under age 40, 62 percent of African Americans who self ID as independents (34 percent of African Americans), 57 percent of those who categorized the importance of the election as low, and 47 percent of those who tend to vote only in the Presidential on-year were open to considering the Republican candidate after hearing the argument that Democrats take African Americans for granted and have a history of neglecting African Americans except right before elections, when they make promises that go unfulfilled after the elections.

While there was considerable continuity in the turnout patterns of African Americans in the 2002 off-year, our efforts to expand the electorate was made more difficult by the Republican Black radio strategy. Republican messaging to the base hampered our ability to expand the off-year electorate in 2002. In the absence of a significant response in Democratic strategy, Republican messaging to the base will make base voter continuity, not to mention expansion, very difficult for Democrats in 2003 and 2004.

Editor's note: The above is taken from a memorandum, dated November 16, 2002 and received by on Friday, November 22, 2002. The only portions which have not been included are the tables and references to said tables

Cornell Belcher and Donna Brazile

Tuesday, November 26, 2002