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The unpredictable African-American vote

world Updated: Oct 31, 2008 23:01 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
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Ask black American about Barack Obama and many give a controlled response. “I won’t even breathe after November 5. I will let out a big sigh only in January when Obama puts his hand on the Bible and takes his oath of office,” says Emmet Pierson Jr, an African-American urban developer in Kansas City.

Forget about talk that Obama is not “black” enough. Visit any Obama campaign office and at least half the volunteers are black. Having Obama as the candidate has transformed a black vote that, while Democratic, was often marred by low turnouts.

“African-Americans vote Democratic but they can’t be taken for granted. A Democratic mayor, Al Brooks, took them for granted and lost,” says Stephen Bough, Obama’s campaign chair in Jackson County.

The crucial test will be whether the surge in black interest will be reflected in higher turnout at the polls. Bough believes so. “Normally only 15-20 per cent of registered African-American actually cast their vote. This time that figure could be 90 per cent.”

He believes this is going to make poll predictions go awry. “Pollsters base their models on past voting patterns. The African-American is not going to follow his past pattern.”

It’s much more personal for a black American like Pierson.

He’s in the highest income bracket and confessed he’d even voted for a local Republican once. But the idea of one of his kind becoming president is so exciting that he will take his young daughters to the polling booth on election-day. “They can’t vote but they should experience this,” he says.

There is nervousness though at what would happen if Obama were to lose. Especially if the vote is close or ends with a repeat of the Al Gore experience: the Democratic candidate wins the popular vote but loses the electoral college.

Steve Krascke, a political journalist with the Kansas City Star, will only say that an Obama defeat would be “an absolutely devastating blow” to the Democratic Party.

The African Americans have the smarter, better looking candidate, Pierson half-jokes, and if he fails many are going to assume something happened.