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Six Weeks From Election Day, Little Is Clear

Reports of unhappiness among black Democrats are not new. Talking Points addressed this issue months ago. Yet after a spate of such stories in the late spring, both the Kerry camp and the CBC were going out of their way to make happy talk and sing Kumbaya. Clearly, the problem never got fixed.

On Wednesday, about 30 of the caucus's 39 members met on Capitol Hill with a group of top Kerry advisers to air out the differences. I chatted with a top CBC official and a top Kerry campaign official who attended the meeting. Both requested anonymity so they could speak freely.

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You can reach Terry Neal by e-mail at CommentsForNeal@
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Surprisingly, both agreed on a few basic points. Number one, the problem is a strategic one that has to do with allocation of resources -- or lack thereof -- for get-out-the-vote activities focused on black voters. For instance, reports that Kerry has backed off his campaigning in some battleground states, such as Missouri, that appear to be moving into Bush territory have upset black lawmakers who wanted Kerry to still devote resources to African American communities in those states.

"The campaign has been staying away from the CBC," said the Kerry official. "And these people have earned a right to sit at the table."

The Kerry official characterized the problem more as the benign neglect of a still Massachusetts-centric campaign hierarchy that has had little experience with the complexities of energizing black voters than as any sort of intentional or strategic slight.

The official cited another systemic problem: In past cycles, the CBC has been on the receiving end of large infusions of soft money from the DNC for get-out-the-vote efforts. The CBC used millions of dollars in 2000 to help produce one of the largest African American turnouts ever for former vice president Al Gore.

But new campaign finance laws, which ban big soft money donations to the parties, have precluded such transfers this year. And no major, well-funded 527-type group has emerged to raise money and fill that void.

Both the Kerry campaign official and CBC official agree that this is not just an issue of members not getting their egos stroked enough by the Kerry camp. There are real-world implications that could play out on Election Day in African American voter turnout.

Kerry is scheduled to meet with CBC members on Friday to discuss these issues.

Another Important Constituency

Both The Washington Post and the New York Times reported this week on Kerry's problems shoring up another important base -- women voters. The gender gap has been a persistent reality in presidential elections going back at least until 1980, the last time women evenly split their vote between and Democratic and Republican candidate. See the chart here.

In 1996, men split their votes almost evenly between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, but women gave Clinton a huge 16-point advantage and gave him a blowout victory. In 2000, women preferred Al Gore by 11 percentage points while men preferred Bush by 11 percentage points.

The gender gap is a significant phenomenon for one reason: Women have increasingly been voting in larger numbers than men. The Washington Post's Lois Romano reported on Thursday that the double-digit lead Kerry once enjoyed among women has eroded, according to various polls.

The candidate is getting his share of advice on what to do about that, but oddly -- or perhaps appropriately, since this is politics we're talking about -- the advice is contradictory.

"What we're hearing is that women just don't feel like he's addressing any issues that affect their lives," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "Obviously the war affects our lives, but women also want to hear about jobs, health care and child care."

Gandy said Kerry is considered a hero in the women's rights movement for coming down on the right side of issues important to women voters. And even a source within the Kerry campaign told me that some insiders are pushing him to talk more about his support for abortion rights and family planning.

But according to Romano's story, that's not Kerry's problem. "Most troubling for Democrats is that a majority of the women polled say that they believe Kerry would do better for pocketbook issues -- an indicator that usually drives the female vote -- yet they favor Bush because they consider him a stronger leader and better equipped to handle the terrorist threat," Romano wrote. "In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 19 percent more women say Kerry would improve the job outlook -- but 21 percent also say Bush would do a better job defending against terrorism."

In other words, Kerry's domestic message is getting through. But this year, the paradigm has shifted and the priorities of both sexes are similar.

Susan J. Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for Women in American Politics at Rutgers University, said the issue is not just what Kerry is or isn't doing, but also what Bush has done to close the gap. Bush has made an intense effort to appeal to women voters, featuring his wife Laura on the campaign trail and taking pains to cast his rhetoric in female-friendly ways.

"Bush clearly has been out there speaking to audiences of women, talking about how women are being liberated in Afghanistan and Iraq and how things are better for them and making appeals about protecting the homeland in a way that women have really been responsive to," Carroll said. "And he's done that in a way that Kerry hasn't really countered."


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