by Alec Tyson
Eight candidates for the 2008 Democratic nomination for president squared off last night in a debate held before a predominantly black audience at Howard University in Washington D.C. and televised nationally by PBS. Here is a run-down of how their views on key issues stacked up against the attitudes of the general public, of self-identified Democrats, Republicans and independents, and of African Americans generally, as measured by recent Pew Research Center surveys.
Health care and HIV/AIDS
The candidates spent much of the debate discussing their health care plans and the ways in which they would address the AIDS epidemic. Hillary Clinton received loud applause for saying there would be more outrage in this country if white women were as affected as black women by the disease. Some 10% of African Americans name HIV/AIDS as the most important health care problem facing the country today; 4% of the general public and Democrats share this view. When asked specifically about the most difficult health care problem facing “you and your family,” African Americans also stand out for their views. Some 8% of blacks cite cost as the most difficult problem they face, notably fewer than Democrats (15%) and the general public (15%). Blacks are more likely to cite diabetes and high blood pressure as health problems faced by their families.
On the topic of opportunity in America, Edwards said that success in life is influenced by a “family lottery” where a person is born into a situation that can greatly improve or harm their chances for success in life. Democrats (35%) are no more likely than the overall public (34%) to agree that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” However, some 48% of African Americans either completely (16%) or mostly (32%) agree with that statement and 47% also say that hard work offers little guarantee of success in life. By contrast, only 20% of Republicans say that hard work is no guarantee of success.
On taxes, there was consensus among the candidates that Bush’s tax cuts should be repealed. This position finds strong support both within the party and among African Americans. Overall 73% of Democrats think that some or all of the tax cuts should be repealed including 43% who say Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy should be repealed while other tax cuts remain in place, and an additional 30% who say all of the tax cuts should be repealed. Blacks express similar views, but are more likely to support repealing all tax cuts (44%) than to support repealing only those for the wealthy (33%). Not surprisingly, Republicans disagree; only 12% support repealing all of Bush’s tax cuts and 23% support repealing cuts for the wealthy.
Rep. Kucinich voiced strong opinions on the issue of corporate profits, especially in regard to private health care companies. Kucinch stated that corporate profits were too high and health care should be run nationally as a non-profit. Democrats strongly agree with Kucnich on the question of whether business corporations make too much profit — 70% say that is the case. Blacks express similar levels of agreement, with 73% saying corporations make too much profit. A majority (54%) of Republicans also share this view as does 65% of the overall public.
Racial discrimination was a recurring topic throughout the forum and one that held particular salience in light of a Supreme Court decision earlier in the day rejecting race as a criterion for school integration. No candidate at the forum denied that racial discrimination still exists in America and Sen. Clinton, Rep. Obama and Sen. Edwards, among others, decried discrimination in the workplace and the criminal justice system. Seven-in-ten African Americans either mostly (29%) or completely (41%) disagree with the statement “discrimination against blacks is rare today.” Majorities of Democrats (70%), the general public (62%), whites (60%) and Republicans (54%) also disagree that discrimination against blacks is rare today.
There is somewhat less consensus among demographic groups when it comes to affirmative action and other programs designed to improve the position of blacks and other minorities. A 93% majority of blacks either strongly favor (60%) or favor (33%) affirmative action programs. While majorities of Democrats (83%), the general public (70%), whites (65%) and Republicans (56%) also favor such programs, a 37-point gap divides African Americans and Republicans on the question of support for affirmative action programs.
Opinion divides still more sharply along demographic lines when respondents are asked whether “we should make every possible effort to improve the position of blacks and other minorities even if it means giving them preferential treatment.” A 57% majority of blacks and a 67% majority of Hispanics agree with this statement. Only 42% of Democrats, 33% of the general public, 27% of whites and 17% of Republicans agree.
The Democratic candidates expressed strong and unanimous criticism of the handling of the Gulf Coast reconstruction, in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Such criticism is likely to be well received by Democrats and blacks, both of which are also highly critical of the handling of the disaster. Some 87% of Democrats and 85% of blacks rate the job the federal government has done in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as only fair/poor and majorities of both blacks (51%) and Democrats (54%) call the job “poor.” (The general public is hardly less critical: 76% rate the government response post Katrina as fair or poor.)
Furthermore, African Americans overwhelmingly see Katrina through the prism of race — fully 66% of blacks told a September 2005 Pew survey that they believed the government’s response to Katrina would have been faster if most of the victims had been white. While Democrats (42%) are more likely than the general public (26%), whites (17%) and Republicans (8%) to agree with that position, a majority of Democrats (53%) say it would not have made any difference in the government’s response, had most of the victims been white.
Sen. Dodd was one of several candidates who criticized the administrations’ leadership on Darfur and stated clearly that the U.S. should take action to protect the people of Darfur. Perhaps surprisingly, blacks (48%) are no more likely than the public (51%) to say that the United States has a responsibility to do something about ethnic genocide in Darfur. There is little party divide on this question with 53% of Republicans and 51% of Democrats expressing support for U.S. action.
Role and Size of Government
Throughout the evening, the Democratic candidates expressed support for expanded federal programs to address issues such as education, health care and recovery along the Gulf Coast. The public is split on whether they would rather have a smaller government providing fewer services (45%) or a bigger government providing more services (43%). However, among blacks, there is no such ambivalence: By a margin of more than three-to-one (69%-21%), blacks favor a bigger government with more services. The candidates are also on firm ground among the Democratic Party’s rank-and-file, fully six-in-ten (60%) favor a bigger government compared with 28% who favor a smaller government with fewer services.
Democrats and blacks were likely to have appreciated the amount of time devoted to a discussion of education at the forum. Among Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters, 12% name education as the one issue that will be most important to them in choosing among the candidates for the Democratic nomination, making education the 4th most important issue for Democrats overall. Within this group, African Americans are somewhat more likely to name education as the most important issue; 22% do so. By comparison, 5% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters list education as the most important issue.