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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The African-American Vote

Charlton McIlwain, New York University
Charlotte, NC
September 4, 2012

Democratic National Convention

5 September 2012
Mr. McIlwain: Good afternoon. Welcome to Charlotte. This is actually my hometown, I was born here but moved away when I was about ten years old. My family still all lives here, so I hope you’re having a good time and able to see a little bit of the city while you’re working non-stop, I’m sure.

I want to say a little bit more about my background and maybe that will open up the range of questions that you might want to present to me. This is my fourth convention. In 2000 I was a delegate from Oklahoma and was able to experience the Democratic National Convention that way in Los Angeles that year, and I’ve been to subsequent Democratic Conventions after that, every one between then and now.

My area of expertise is really in race and political communication. Before I embarked on my academic career I spent about five or seven years or so in politics in Oklahoma. I worked as a communications director for a congressional campaign, a gubernatorial campaign there, and for a year or so as a communication director for the State Democratic Party in Oklahoma. None of the candidates that I worked for -- You will not know any of their names because they all lost, which is in part why I am at a university now and not still in politics.

So I have some background in terms of political campaigning, messaging and so forth. My general training is in the area of political rhetoric, political messages, the way those are formed, the message that candidates deliver, how they put those messages together, how they look at their audiences and tailor those messages for particular audiences. Then more specifically, I look at the issue of race in political campaigns. How racial appeals, as I call them, get used by candidates and to what ends? Do racial appeals work? What are they? What do they look like?

So one of the things that I’ve been keenly interested in, I should step back and say I came out with a book about a year ago called Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns, and part of what we did for that, my co-author and I, analyzed political ads, about a thousand of them from 1972 up to 2006, and looked at the variety of race-based messages in those ads. We looked at the news media and how primarily the U.S. news media covered issues of race in political campaigns, and how that impacted the election hopes of primarily candidates of color. Then we also tested using some experiments the impact that race-based appeals might have on voters.

So all of that filters into what I’ve been really paying close attention to in this election cycle in terms of race. When we look at this, we really begin back in the GOP Convention. We can sort of say we go all the way back to 2008, but for this particular election cycle during the GOP Primary, rather. Many issues came up, primarily Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney largely stayed away from these issues, but you started to see a number of statements being made, particularly about African Americans, about welfare, about poverty, about the need to improve the culture of poor people, particularly black and brown people in the United States as a way of getting them to take ownership and responsibility for themselves rather than looking to the state, looking to social welfare programs. You began to see a discourse in that primary season that very much, at least in my opinion, was based on the subtext of race. To me, beginning there and moving up through the general election season that we’re embarking on now, told me a number of things about what we might see in this particular campaign. I’ll say a couple of things about that and then I will shut up and listen to some questions from you.

What is very clear to me is that this campaign is going to be what I might call a base-driven campaign. As you’ve probably heard, I heard that you heard from a pollster this morning, and probably one of the things you heard was the number of persuadables in the U.S., the number of voters who have not yet made up their minds who they’re going to vote for, is very small. The proportion of the electorate who has made up their mind is very large. So I think one of the things that both campaigns, both the Romney and Obama campaigns are really trying to do in this election cycle is to try to turn out their base constituency as much as possible.

What does that mean? Especially in terms of race. For Romney this means that he needs white people. He needs white men especially. Many people forget that in 2008 Barack Obama lost the white vote. More whites who voted voted against Barack Obama than did vote for him.

So one of the things you see, I’m sure all of you have seen the news around Mitt Romney’s birther joke back several weeks ago, you’ve seen several of his ads that particularly point to welfare, and you’ve probably seen that many of the fact checkers have said that the material in most of those ads are factually in error. But the fact that he persists and continues to use them, and you heard them a lot last week at the GOP Convention, says to me that they are focused on messages that particularly might appeal to whites, particularly white working class voters, particularly white working class male voters, and that is a constituency that if they can really mobilize on election day they will be better advantaged. I think that they see a very slim possibility of gaining very many persuadable voters at this point, or independent voters. So a focus on simply driving out our base, and that means creating messages that’s going to really fire up that base and mobilize them enough, energize them enough that they will ultimately get out and vote on election day.

On the other side of the aisle we have President Obama who, as we know, actually about a week or so ago, this came out and was the first time I had ever seen this, I think the first time anyone had really seen this, when they asked African American voters who they support, and whether they support Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney’s support amongst African Americans was zero. Which means probably statistically it wasn’t actually zero, but it was so far below even that one percent margin that it was statistically insignificant.

In 2008 black Americans voted primarily for Barack Obama in large numbers. But over four years, during his presidency, he has lost many black voters in terms of their energy level and the level and strength of their support for him. Many of them thought he would do things for them, for the black community that was particularly focused on their needs, their interests. Many of them seemed to be disappointed.

So what we have as we’re moving into the final leg of this election is a community who still by and large supports the President, but the big question is will they be supportive enough? Are they energetic enough about the President to actually go and cast their ballot on election day? So the Obama campaign similarly trying to focus much of their efforts on mobilizing this crucial part of their vote. If they’re able to increase or at least continue the type of numbers amongst African Americans going out to vote on election day as they did in 2008, they see themselves as being particularly advantaged. Then additionally if they’re able to do the same type of mobilization amongst Latino voters who by and large at this point tend to be supporting Barack Obama, but that being one sort of split constituency when we talk about race and ethnicity.

I’ll stop there and entertain questions.

Question: Hi, sir. How are you doing? Thank you for being here.

My name is Jose Diaz with the Reforma Newspaper from Mexico.

The question is, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said Governor Romney had zero percent of the black vote at this moment. Do you think that’s correct?

Second, how do you think this issue of disrespect that many people in the black community feel some people in the Republican party are having towards President Obama is playing out? How strong do you think the black community feels about that?

Mr. McIlwain: Good questions, thank you.

Frist, whether it’s zero or close to zero, I think it’s very probable simply that those polls are accurate in the spirit of the poll which is simply that support for Mitt Romney is very very and extremely low when it comes to African Americans.

That’s always been the case. Mitt Romney went to the NAACP, one of the largest African American civic organizations, civil rights organizations in the country and made his pitch to African Americans and basically said I will do better for you than President Obama has in four years. I think there were some things that happened there that simply showed that many black Americans simply do not trust Mitt Romney. They don’t believe he will do a better job. In many ways they see that he will set their issues and their cause back significantly if he’s elected. So I think the waning and close to zero support comes or stems from that.

The second issue is about this idea of disrespect. I think that has always, for about four years that the President has been in office has been a subtext there. I was just saying the other day that I wish someone would go out and sort of do the comparative research if we go back to President Bush, President Clinton, Regan, Carter, and see the type of discourse or interchange that people had when addressing a President directly, but also when talking about him. Maybe some of you remember the State of the Union maybe three years ago, maybe in the first year when the Congressman from South Carolina said, “You lie”, stood up on the Floor and yelled that. You had Jan Brewer, Governor of Arizona who had that moment outside on the tarmac where she got in the President’s face and pointed repeatedly. I think those images resonate with black Americans very strongly. I think the do see a level of disrespect that they don’t see or have not seen with other presidents.

So factually right or wrong, I think the perception is that because Barack Obama is black he is being treated differently than former presidents and treated with less respect than other presidents. I think that’s a very powerful feeling.

Question: Hi, Jan Loop from the Danish Newspaper.

What has President Obama actually done for the African American people here? Do you have a fact list of what he’s done? Because it seems like they’re worse off than they were before.

Mr. McIlwain: That’s a good question. This is being videotaped you said, right? [Laughter].

When it comes to targeted policies directly at African Americans, I would say very little. But that’s been the President’s approach to dealing with race and social issues which is a type of universalism which is, we know that African Americans more than other Americans are being disadvantaged in the job market, are proportionally more represented in the ranks of the unemployed. So the pitch from Barack Obama has been that if we help grow the economy, strengthen the number of jobs for everyone, then that will particularly affect African Americans.

So I think if I were a representative of his at this moment I would say the fact that some of the economic indicators that have been going up and up fairly continuously over the last 9 months to 12 months has impacted African Americans in a positive way, but only insofar as they’re part of that sort of general group.

When we look at Michelle Obama’s health care initiative. Again, something they would pitch as a general health care initiative for all Americans trying to get Americans, particularly young people, to eat more healthy foods and be more health conscious, but not pitching it as a program directed towards African Americans even though African Americans by and large are those who are over-represented in neighborhoods where healthy food is inaccessible or difficult to get access to.

I guess my short answer to your question would be nothing or very little if we’re looking at it in terms of what did Barack Obama do specifically for black people. But I think insomuch as the health care bill, the financial oversight legislation that was passed and signed, all of those things because African Americans are highly represented and disadvantaged by those issues, they would say they have been helped by these policies.

Question: Thank you. [Inaudible], Mexico.

The previous speaker said that he was expecting a big turnout of African American voters in this election because in that way they will, up to now President Obama will be seen as the philosophic American President who failed in this endeavor. But in the other hand, a couple of months ago after he gave support to the same sex marriage there was a lot of talk about the possibility that he may lose a big chunk of the African American voters because there is big opposition for same sex marriage among African Americans.

So the question is how do you reconcile these two differing notions?

Mr. McIlwain: Thank you.

I think the gay marriage issue has been a little bit of a wedge for African American voters. I think that the Republicans have always known, as well as Democrats, that many African Americans are conservative when it comes to some social issues and gay marriage being chief among them. And even here in Charlotte, some of my relatives have been telling me about African American ministers at evangelical churches who have been counseling their church members and parishioners to simply not vote on election day because of the support for gay marriage.

I think there will be some of that. I think that will have some impact. That feeling is strong, especially when you have the religious backing behind it or undergirding it. So I think some will say you know what, I can’t support him simply because of that issue, in many of the same ways that others are kind of one issue voters. If I’m against abortion and the candidate is for abortion then I won’t vote for him or her because of that single issue.

I think more than that, though, there has been this closing of ranks which is much more consistent with your earlier comments in that question which is African Americans see Barack Obama as one of their own. They fight, they disagree, many wish that he would have approached them and their issues very differently over these last four years in office. But when it comes down to it, he is one of us.

So it does much more for African Americans as a community to continue to support and make sure that he is reelected rather than to let him fail. That failure is a powerful symbol as they see it, as much as Obama’s election was a powerful symbol about race in America.

Question: Thank you, [inaudible] from the Danish Newspaper. Thank you for doing this.

Following up on my colleague’s question about what Obama has done for African Americans, could you tell us what he could have done? What kind of initiatives could have been made that would have made African Americans more happy with his record? Thank you.

Mr. McIlwain: One of the things, very early on in his presidency the members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other African American interest groups came and said look, our people are more unemployed and becoming more unemployed every day than other folks in the country. So what they pitched to him when he was looking at new stimulus bills, for instance, was to do target stimulus bills that would target particular neighborhoods or enterprise zones, if you will, that would try to boost both jobs and economic stimulation in heavily black neighborhoods across the country. Or to give particular incentives to owners of black-owned businesses. Tax incentives, government contracts, and so forth. So that was the model that many in the African American civil rights community pushed and tried to persuade the President to do. Again, his response was to take the other route which is I’m not going to say this is a stimulus for African Americans, for Latinos, for any particular group, but this is a stimulus that can be targeted to all Americans, and to the degree that it helps all Americans it will help even more African Americans.

Question: Anna Guita, [inaudible], Rome Italy.

Has Mrs. Obama done what you said President Obama hasn’t done enough? Hasn’t she approached the African American community and made their problems her problems and tried to be a role model? Has she succeeded? Do you see her as a success?

Mr. McIlwain: I do see her as a success, a success within the African American community and even broadly I think for a long time now her approval ratings and favorable ratings in polls have been very much higher than the President’s. So people even outside of Democrats see her as a very accomplished woman.

Within the African American community she has probably been on the ground, so to speak, talking directly to them much more than the President has. But in the same way that the President has chosen to take this universal approach to social issues and issues targeted at the American public at large, she has adopted that similar line.

Again, I’ll bring up her signature health initiative, which you could logically see if blacks are those who are over-represented and those who have little access to good food, good doctors when they get sick, healthy food at school for their children, than if I create an initiative to create awareness about that and to attack that in some way, that problem in some way. I don’t have to say this is an initiative for blacks in America. I can simply say this is a healthy choice, healthy food initiative, whatever I want to call it, and kind of know if it helps it’s going to help African Americans more because they make up much more of that population who needs help.

So I think when you look at the times she’s been involved tangentially in policy matters, which she hasn’t been very much, military affairs, veterans affairs she’s been very much involved in. But those things she’s pitched as universal. Things that we need to do as a country to help all of our veterans, all of those who are poor and in need of access to quality food and so forth, and not as a race targeted or African American targeted initiative.

So I think her level of appeal amongst African Americans and the larger electorate doesn’t come so much from her appeal particularly to African Americans, but her, something about her appeal more generally in terms of being a role model out there for everyone.

Question: [Inaudible] from Danish Newspaper [Filiciden].

You said earlier that a lot of African American voters were hoping that Obama would address some of their special interests. Now some people are saying that it actually might be harder for him to address those issues because he’s African American. How do you see that?

Mr. McIlwain: I think that is very much correct in a lot of ways. Precisely because of some of the things that I’ve mentioned. The President has really made it a point, especially after the kind of wakeup call if you will early in his presidency with the alleged racial profiling incident with the Harvard Professor Henry Lewis Gates, and he had that kind of knee jerk reaction where he talked about the police acting stupidly. For me that was sort of an honest moment from an African American President who probably knew first-hand something about that type of experience. But as soon as he said it he began to sort of walk back those comments and people were very upset, people in the electorate, U.S. citizens were very upset, many of them, that he came out so forcefully in defending an African American man over a white cop and talking very explicitly about racial profiling and its prevalence in the United States. I think that was a wakeup call very early on that he knew from back during the campaign time and on through that it would be difficult for him to govern if he governed using very explicitly race targeted types of appeals and policies.

So what happens is, I’ve said you know, we’re going to grow the economy for everyone. That’s going to help everyone get more jobs. That’s going to help ultimately African Americans get more jobs. We’re going to help all of our veterans coming home from war so that they’re employed. So that their mental health, their physical health is taken care of. To the degree that we help all of these -- [break in recording] -- repeated over and over throughout his presidency I think makes it very difficult for him to come up in say a new term and say now we’re going to talk about economic stimulus for African Americans in particular. I think it would elicit an even greater objection given his track record than it would have in the very beginning if he’d had that type of message.

Question: Markson Birkhart, Information, Copenhagen.

You mentioned enterprise zones, neighborhood enterprise zones a something that he has not tried to push. It seems to me, was that Clinton who started that, who had that idea? I ask you because is it possible to theorize that Obama actually is able to do less for the inner city black neighborhoods than other presidents have been able to because he’s black?

Mr. McIlwain: I think it’s a very plausible argument. And that is, if a certain portion of the electorate already sees me as not one of them, which was a sentiment coming out of the 2008 election that persists, if a certain part of the citizenry sees you as someone that they think of that will go out and is primarily looking to represent his own, that is other black folks, and that they know or that they have this opposition, this negative feeling, then it makes it very difficult for him to go into a predominantly black, community and say I want to help you, and to say very explicitly, I want to help you who are black, particularly around problems that affect you because you are black. Because the reaction has as much to do with the community as it does with who Barack Obama is, and many of their objections to who he is. So I think that in many ways it might be more palatable when President Clinton talked about having a national conversation about race, when he talked about enterprise zones, and enterprise zones have been something that’s been policy for both Democrats and Republicans as well over the late ‘80s and ‘90s.

I think there was a sense in which because so much of that racial animus was not directed at him because he was white, that he could have a little bit more latitude in many ways.

So at least on that sort of level I think that the President may have a much more difficult time trying to deal in these very explicitly racial terrains where we’re talking about anything from economics and economic development to health care, or other issues.

Question: Hi [inaudible] Hyat Newspaper.

How much does the Paul Ryan help Romney you think with white voters? Also taking into account his Medicare plan. Also in which swing states do you think the minority vote can come mostly into play? Especially here in North Carolina.

Mr. McIlwain: I’ll take the second part of that question first. I think that North Carolina is one of those picture perfect states where the African American vote can be crucial. Again, it’s not about support, but about turnout. So these states where there are heavy pockets of African American voters -- North Carolina, Georgia, many parts of Florida, many areas across the south -- California, New York -- are places where if the black vote really turns out in the type of numbers that they did in 2008, the President is probably going to be in pretty good position.

Then we have that sort of middle part of the state, and this will connect to your first question. Places like Wisconsin or Iowa or Idaho, many of those Midwestern states where African American population representation is very low, there is an audience there that is particularly prepared, if you will, for a type of appeal that a Mitt Romney and probably even more than a Paul Ryan presents. You can see this in many of their ads of late.

I know there was an early web ad, it was a two minute ad, and it talked all about America and us and what we do and what we know, what we believe, who we are. And in two minutes of an ad there was no one shown that was non-white. It says something, right? When we say us, we, our, and then everyone that we show looks like me it says a lot about who that we and us is.

So I think that Ryan and Romney know that President Obama has a particular problem, if you will, amongst whites or at least a certain segment of white voters, in the same way that Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary back in 2008 tried to mobilize whites in much the same way in places like Pennsylvania where she basically said you know, I’m one of you, which was I’m from here but I’m also white, and that makes me a little more palatable to you.

I think Paul Ryan, particularly because he’s a Midwesterner and not a Northeasterner, which Mitt Romney is largely seen as today, is able to sort of project that image. Working class, white, Midwest, those types of values. And you will hear I think continually the Romney campaign talking about this idea of hard work which they talk about Paul Ryan personifying his father dying and him having to rely on his own work to kind of build himself and his family up to support them after those tough times. So I think Ryan really adds much in that way to the degree that they’re trying to appeal to that segment of voters.

Question: Laura Morna from the Irish Times.

I wonder if I could ask you for some facts and figures. I think that African Americans are disproportionately represented among the unemployed. Do you know an unemployment rate nationally for African Americans? Do you know what it is?

Mr. McIlwain: I couldn’t tell you with any reasonable certainty.

Question: What about the percentage in the military? In Iraq, for example, I saw a lot more African Americans than seems to be --

Mr. McIlwain: Again, I can’t tell you a number. I’m very bad with numbers anyway, keeping them in my head. I think it’s quite easy to find and I think you’re predilection observations are right in terms of their under-representation and so forth in those --

Question: What about, I seem to remember that African Americans are like 12 or 13 percent of the population, is that right?

Mr. McIlwain: About 12, 13.

Question: And what, I know for the Hispanic community the estimate one hears over and over from Jeb Bush and people like that is that Romney would have to win 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, otherwise he will lose. Do you have a comparable figure for the percentage of the black population that have to turn out? We know that 95 percent or so are going to vote for Obama, but below what threshold is it not enough?

Mr. McIlwain: It’s hard for me to say. I wouldn’t feel too comfortable doing that since I’m not a pollster, really, and because there are many different ways of winning or losing an election. So if African Americans under-performed in say the 60, 70 percentile range, it might be that that gets made up with the youth vote that gets mobilized to a very high degree. But I think the baseline, I think, is probably those numbers from 2008. The vote. So I think any deviation below those numbers I think will spell trouble for Obama amongst all of those constituencies -- African Americans, Latinos, and whites as well.

Question: I heard Obama got 40 percent of the white vote in 2008, is that right?

Mr. McIlwain: That sounds about right, maybe 42 or --

Question: If that goes lower than 40 percent he’s in trouble too, isn’t he?

Mr. McIlwain: I would say so.

Question: Thanks.

Question: [Inaudible] with Germany’s Business Daily Handelsblatt.

You mentioned that Obama supporters are on the ground trying to mobilize African Americans. What is it that they need to hear? What can Obama promise them this time to get their vote?

Mr. McIlwain: That’s a good question. Maybe what Obama does not need to do is make any promises. That might be the safest thing. I think the best thing that he can do, I saw a T-shirt out here walking around that had a picture of Obama that said, “We’ve got your back” and it was basically talking about African Americans and other supporters having the President’s back, but I think that if you turn that around, that’s basically the message that the President could give to African Americans and say look, it may not look like it, I may not talk like it, but I’ve got your back. I’m looking out for you. I know what your interests are. I know what your needs are. I’m in your community. I’m one of you and I will look out for you no matter what the issue is.

I think more than anything else, more than a promise about a particular policy, it’s that sentiment that African Americans want to know simply that he’s looking out for them. So I think that’s probably the most powerful message that he can try to get out there to motivate African Americans to come out and vote the way they did in ’08.

Question: [Inaudible] from Danish [inaudible].

I was wondering, a lot of your answers were about the consequence of Obama’s politics. He stopped talking about race and his saying we’re going to improve for every American.

I met a woman out here from the Black Caucus who told me that she agrees with this. Just let’s stop about the whole racial conversation.

What do you think is the consequences if the whole conversation stops?

Mr. McIlwain: That’s a good question. I think it would be devastating for us to give up that question of race altogether. When we look at almost every indicator of social life and social mobility in the United States we find African Americans towards the bottom. When we talk about educational opportunity, we talk about financial opportunity, economic, preparedness, wealth that individuals and families are able to pass on, African Americans are at the very bottom.

Of course conservatives are going to say well, that’s your fault. Right? If you don’t make it, you don’t get an education, that’s by and large because of what you have done or have not done.

But the reality is there are still very many systematic barriers, discriminatory barriers to social mobility for African Americans and Latinos as well in the United States. We saw this with the housing crisis where a vast majority of those with sub-prime loans were African Americans. What we now know as we have gone through and investigated is that many of the big banks targeted African Americans with sub-prime loans and that even when African Americans and whites went into the same bank, were similarly prepared in terms of finances and so forth, African Americans were given a higher interest rate than whites.

These types of systemic disadvantages and barriers I think are still out there. When we talk about the property tax funding of public schools, such that highly African American areas that are poor, therefore then have low property tax base and schools that are very unprepared, so there are many of these systemic issues that are race-based, and I think if we give up on the question of race we essentially give up on a whole generation of young people who will not have access to the American dream in the ways that our country has promised them.

Question: I covered Joe Biden’s speech to the NAACP and it seems to me that he, and then there was that remark he made about put you all back in chains a few weeks ago that upset the Republicans a great deal. Is he in a sense almost a surrogate for Obama with the black community? How do you see Joe Biden, his role, his influence, his importance?

Mr. McIlwain: He is a surrogate. I don’t know if he’s a surrogate particularly for the black community. I think many people sort of now know that Joe Biden will be Joe Biden in a lot of ways. He says a lot of things that he wishes he hadn’t said, and certainly that other people wish he hadn’t said, sometimes the President included. It was Joe Biden even before he was chosen to be Vice President who talked about Barack Obama as being the first viable black candidate for President because he was fresh and clean and story book and articulate. And I don’t want to dismiss it in sort of the ways that some people do and say ah, that’s just Joe Biden. But I think in a way that Joe Biden sort of communicates in that way ,which is very conversational, very much unguarded, uncensored, I think that resonates with black voters, I think it resonates with many voters because you rarely get that sense of authenticity with political candidates in the system.

So when he made that remark about chains, there are probably very few African Americans in the audience that were going out screaming, saying you shouldn’t have said that. Right? It was the Republicans. The black folks in there knew what he was talking about, and even if they knew all right Joe, maybe you should have said that a little bit differently, you could have finessed that a little better, they knew what he was talking about. They weren’t offended. In fat they saw some truth in what he was saying. It was sort of one of those opportune times for the conservatives to sort of beat their chests and say how incensed they were over “racist comments” which they always do when Democrats make them, it seems to be.

Thank you. I enjoyed being here and talking with you.

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