Lincoln’s Ark. Runoff Win Points to Power of Black Voters

Peter Slevin and Karen Tumulty, Washington Post, June 9, 2010

For all the millions that both sides spent on the bruising Arkansas Senate Democratic primary race, Yvonne Thomas admits she went to the polls not having much of a sense about the candidates.

What she did know, and what turned out to be the only thing that mattered in her decision to cast her ballot for the embattled incumbent Blanche Lincoln, was this: “Obama wanted us to vote for her,” said Thomas, who is African American.

Unlike in much of the South, in Arkansas it is a rare thing for the black vote to be the decisive factor in elections. African Americans here account for 16 percent of the population–about half their percentage in Georgia to the east. Arkansas is the only state from the Confederacy that has never elected a black candidate to Congress, or to any statewide office, since Reconstruction.

But in this election, Lincoln and her Democratic primary challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, battled hard to win black voters. The intensity of that courtship was evidenced by the large number of African Americans who stood onstage Tuesday night with Lincoln as she celebrated a victory that the smart money in Washington had declared to be all but out of reach.

The black vote “was definitely something we had to pay close attention to,” said campaign manager Steve Patterson the day after Lincoln’s victory.

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On Tuesday, Lincoln beat Halter in all but one of the Arkansas counties with the largest African American populations, said Janine A. Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll; by comparison, in the May 18 primary, he took two.

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Lincoln already held a sizable advantage with Arkansas’ African American voters before being forced into a runoff. In the initial primary matchup in May, Lincoln beat Halter 58 to 42 percent among blacks, compared with her much narrower 44 to 43 percent performance across the electorate, Patterson said.

{snip} Obama’s imprimatur may have added as many as six percentage points to Lincoln’s total, by reassuring African Americans and white liberals.

“There’s a great deal of magic to President Obama in the black community,” agreed state Sen. Joyce Elliott, an African American candidate who won the Democratic primary for a Little Rock-based congressional seat. Elliott’s own candidacy may have increased black voter turnout in populous Pulaski County, which went decisively for Lincoln on May 18 and in Tuesday’s runoff.

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The president taped just one 30-second advertisement for Lincoln, but she made sure that his endorsement echoed widely in the Arkansas black community. {snip}

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