Republican John N. Dalton's thumping victory over Democrat Henry E. Howell in last November's gubernatorial election came despite a failure to make any inroads among black voters, a leading Virginia elections analyst, Dr. L.J. Sabato, says in a study to be published next year.
Sabato's conclusions, based on an examination of voting results in precincts he has tracked since 1969, contradict claims by Dalton that he received about 16 per cent of the black vote.
Sabato's tabulation shows that Dalton got only 5 per cent of the black vote in 43 relatively large precincts in nine Virginia cities. Sabato points out that this is about the minimum black vote that Republican candidates can count on in Virginia and is about what former President Ford received when he carried the state over President Carter in 1976.
Dalton made a determined bid for black votes in his race against Howell and, like national GOP chairman Bill Brock, has argued that his party must energetically court the black electorate if it hopes to remain competitive with the Democrats.
At a post-election GOP celebration Dec. 10 in Arlington, Dalton told party regulars that his bid for black votes had paid off with a 16 per cent return for him. His campaign manager, William A. Royall, later said Dalton was relying on a survey conducted by the National Broadcasting Co, and the Associated Press for the 16 per cent figure. The methodology of the NBC-AP survey has never been made public.
The 5 per cent of the black vote that Dalton actually received, Sabato said, was slightly less than Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin received when he defeated Howell in 1973.
The significance of Dalton's failure to attract more black support against Howell, a consipicuous champion of black rights during the civil rights struggles, is discounted by other findings in the Sabato study.
Sabato's tally of the 43 predominantly black, urban precincts shows that moderate Republican Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman received 32.7 per cent of the black vote in his race with Democrat Edward E. Lane, a conservative forced by Coleman to defend a segregationist record.
The Sabato study suggests, despite the low black vote for Dalton, that a moderate Republican, especially one with a conservative opponent, still has the potential for substantial black support.
The study also concludes that the black vote continues to decline in importance in Virginia. A Washington Post election-day voter survey found a black voter turnout of only 9 per cent in its statewide sample of 2,130 voters. Blacks comprise 19 per cent of the population.
Sabato said the vote in the 43 selected precincts increased a hefty 13 per cent over 1973, but the total gubernatorial election vote last year increased 20.8 per cent over 1973.
This means, Sabato said, that a decade-long trend of declining black voter participation in Virginia continued last November.
Moreover, he said, only 82.3 per cent of the black voters in the sample precincts cast ballots for attorney general, further weakening their impact on that race. Even if all black voters had supported Lane, he said, Coleman still would have won on the strength of his majority among whites.
Sabato agreed with a finding in The Post survey that a principal reason for Howell's defeat was negative votes cast against him, rather than for Dalton, by voters disturbed by his controversial positions and style over the years.
However, in a commentary on the overall meaning of the election results, Sabato concluded that the size of the Dalton majority (almost 56 per cent), the easy win by Coleman over a conservative Democrat and the less than expected margin of victory given Democratic Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb carried Republican ascendancy in statewide elections to a significant new level.
He said it is now fair to say that a statewide candidate running on the GOP ticket has a natural edge over a Democratic opponent on the basis of party label alone.
This is sure to be a controversial conclusion among many moderate-to-conservative Democratic office-holders and party officials who are increasingly inclined to blame Howell's candidacies and role in divisive Democratic party fights for the 10-year success of Republican statewide candidates.
Sabatp's analysis of the 1977 election will be published by the Institute of Government at the University of Virginia as have his previous analyses of statewide elections since 1968.
Sabato is a native of Norfolk who has become a recognized state government scholar and is the author of several books on state government and politics.
He was a consultant to the Howell campaign last fall and recently went to England where he will teach American politics and government for the next year.