Conventional wisdom has it that some of the president’s 2008 campaign luster has worn off with Independent voters—thus the GOP sweep that took place yesterday in New Jersey, Virginia and almost in New York’s 23rd district. I’m not sure that I agree with that assessment, as Tuesday’s election results should not be confused with the fact that the president’s approval ratings in Virginia, New Jersey and nationally are still quite high (over 54 percent).
As I see it, the real story is that black voters, once again, sat out an important “off-year” election. Whenever that happens, Republicans win. This is something more black voters must remember, particularly as the color and complexion of the national electorate gets browner. Republicans tend to do well when they build coalitions of loyal conservative voters and can peel off conservative Democrats and Independents as they did last night, again making us irrelevant. Republicans have learned to win without our votes. And they do it time and time again.
This year in Virginia, only 16 percent of blacks showed up at the polls to vote (versus 20 percent in 2008), and in New Jersey, exit polls show that black voters in urban areas like Newark and Camden did not come out in the large numbers usually required for Democrats to win statewide. As talk show host Roland Martin observed last night on CNN, “It is no longer enough for the Democrats to rely on getting Pookie off the couch to vote on Election Day for Democrats to win.” I agree.
What concerns me about Tuesday’s results is that Independent voters have seemingly turned away from the president in two states where he won handily. Still, given his approval ratings, I suspect that both elections have more to do with how voters feel about local issues in their states more than how they feel about the president.
The question for black voters as we head into the 2010 elections is once again how will we wield our political power? One example of a black woman who played her cards right in this year’s election is former BET billionaire Sheila Johnson. Johnson crossed party lines as a lifelong Democrat and became an early supporter of Bob McDonnell in Virginia—even running ads for him against Democrat Creigh Deeds. She read the tea leaves early and realized that the state was going to move back to the Republicans. Having an important hotel and inn project pending in the very Republican Loudoun County, Va., Johnson knew she had to hedge her bets. This is the kind of critical and strategic partnering that I wish more of us would engage in—she aligned herself with the winner in order to keep her business goals moving forward.
The takeaway: Black political power goes far beyond the vote. It’s about how we organize and lobby for issues important to the greater black community. (See Jeff Johnson’s piece on CNN.com about black political power in the age of Obama.) But black voters must realize that when we do not vote, or when we vote for one party (the Democrats) as we usually do, we diminish our importance in the electorate. When that happens, it cuts off access to Republican governors and legislators. They won’t care about our issues. I know this sounds cold, but this is politics. Politicians respond to two things: money and votes. When they win, they empower those that helped to get them elected—usually not us. Sheila Johnson understands this. It’s time for the rest of us to wise up, too.
Sophia A. Nelson is a regular contributor to The Root.