Low Black Turnout in VA Key in Dems Defeat

Washington AFRO , News Analysis, Zenitha Prince Posted: Nov 06, 2009

(November 5, 2009) - ARLINGTON, VA—For many Black voters in Virginia, there seemed to be only two options in this week’s statewide elections—vote Democrat or avoid the polls. Too many chose the latter, political analysts say, and may have played a big role in a GOP sweep on Nov. 3.

“Unfortunately, I think a lot of our people just stayed home,” said Stephanie Myers, national co-chair of Black Women for Obama for Change, a political interest group that campaigned for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, who lost 41 percent to 59 percent to his rival, Robert F. McDonnell.

That was true for Virginia’s entire electorate. This year saw the lowest turnout in a gubernatorial race in four decades, according to statistics from the Virginia State Board of Elections.

Not only did voter registration decrease, but also a mere 39 percent (1,914, 289) of the state’s near-5 million voters showed up at the polls. That was almost half the percentage of people (75 percent) who voted in last year’s presidential election.

Democrats suffered most from this voter malaise, said political analyst Larry Sabato, since the coalition that made President Barack Obama the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964 did not wield their power on behalf of Deeds, 51, and other Democratic candidates. “There was low turnout among African Americans; there was low turnout among young voters; there was low turnout among Obama suburbanites—Democrats just didn’t show up and the Republicans did,” said Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Last year, African Americans accounted for 20 percent of the electorate. But, in Tuesday’s race, they accounted for 15 percent. And, according to an Oct. 27 Washington Post poll, only 12 percent planned to cast their ballots—91 percent voted for Deeds—on Nov. 3.

The outcome, political experts said, was partly the product of a longtime phenomenon in Virginia, whose voters tend to offer up the governor’s mansion as a consolation prize to the party that lost the presidential election.

However, the absence of Black voters—who tend to be the most loyal voters—reflect the lack of two factors: urgency around issues and a strong identification with candidates.

“I suspect a lot of African Americans feel like they’ve exhausted their sense of urgency with Obama. You can’t have a sense of urgency all the time; it’s not a natural human state,” said David Bositis, senior analyst with the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on Black issues. And the fact that Democrats currently control Washington and the state reduced that urgency even more.

More importantly, however, Black voters did not feel connected to the Democratic candidate.

“African-American voters didn’t turn out because Creigh Deeds didn’t have much charisma. He didn’t appeal to them,” Walters said.

And he was a stranger to many, Bositis added.

“Deeds does not have the tie to African-American voters as other Democratic candidates have had,” Bositis said. “He comes from western [rural] Virginia, which is totally White. So in terms of enthusiasm for him I don’t know that that was there.”

And Deeds’ campaign did little to nothing to foster that connection, analysts and voters said.

Asked if she has voted, Anneia Ewell, 23, of Arlington, replied, “For what? At the time for Barack I voted but this time I felt like they [the candidates] didn’t care so why should I?

“Many times I walked by here and nobody asked me are you registered? Do you want a flyer?”

Deed’s overall campaign strategy was faulty, analysts agreed. The candidate publicly fumbled on taxes and instead of delving into his plans to address pocketbook issues such as the economy, he hitched his campaign wagon on his opponent’s 1989 graduate thesis that denigrated homosexuals, working women and unmarried “cohabiters.” But McDonnell, 55, easily brushed it off as the opinions of a young, ignorant man that had been long forgotten.

“While the Republican’s thesis gave pause to suburbanites temporarily—they worried McDonnell would start talking about abortion and disrupt the cocktail hour—he won them over with a smooth, congenial personality,” Sabato wrote in a previous column.

Myers said though her group had a chance to hear details about Deeds’ platform, too many Black voters didn’t. And the candidate didn’t “update” his campaign to utilize the various media available to reach voters, she added.

“His message didn’t get through as strongly as it should [have],” she said. “Black voters have changed; they’ve been empowered. Candidates have to be very specific in how they’re going to address them.”

Compared to Deeds, observers said, McDonnell, a former state’s attorney, was urbane, articulate and charismatic. And despite being a staunch conservative, he seemed to convey the idea that he would work in a bipartisan manner on his clearly set forth plans to create jobs and streamline Virginia’s congested roadways without raising taxes.

The combination drew the support of independents — who voted 2-1 for him, according to the Associated Press exit polls — and prompted the influential endorsement of Sheila Johnson, a Democrat and the wife of BET founder Bob Johnson. Even some African Americans who voted for Deeds said they preferred McDonnell as a candidate.

“I’m going to be frank with you—the other candidate came over much better to me but I just voted for the total Democratic ticket,” said retired school counselor, Jim Stewart, 61, who lives in Arlington.

“McDonnell came over as knowing what he was doing. He came over as ‘if you vote for me, I’m going to serve all the people.’ Deed didn’t come off as sharp as he did in terms of being a leader.”

Stewart predicted, “Deeds is probably going to lose anyway.”

Walters said Deeds’ decision to avoid the imprimatur of the White House, eschewing the designation, “Obama Democrat” in favor of a “Creigh Deeds Democrat” was a “terrible miscalculation” that also led to his defeat.

In the lead up to the elections, pundits created and fed into the storyline that the polls would be a referendum on Obama’s presidency.

“The Republican Party’s overwhelming victory in Virginia is a blow to President Obama and the Democrat Party,” said GOP leader Michael Steele in a statement. “It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the president’s liberal agenda.”

But that theory was disproven by exit polls, which showed a majority of voters—54 percent in Virginia—saying otherwise. However, in the months before the Nov. 3 runoff, Deeds tried to disassociate from the White House, waffling in his acceptance of the president’s help until desperation drove him to court Obama’s assistance in the waning weeks of his campaign.

Had he used the president’s star power earlier on, Deeds could have scored more points with key voter blocs that could have changed the election’s outcome, Walters said.

“He needed to energize the Black vote, the young vote and the Hispanic vote, which were central to Obama’s victory (40 percent of the president’s support came from minorities),” the former University of Maryland professor said. “Minorities had a huge role in Obama’s win so if you didn’t energize Black and Hispanic voters, you were in a bad state from the beginning.”

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