An internal document prepared by a top Democratic strategist warns that a majority of African American voters in Maryland are open to supporting Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele and advises the party not to wait to "knock Steele down."
The 37-page report says a sizable segment of likely black voters -- as much as 44 percent -- would readily abandon their historic Democratic allegiances "after hearing Steele's messaging."
"Governor Ehrlich and [Lt. Gov.] Michael Steele have a clear ability to break through the Democratic stronghold among African American voters in Maryland," says the March 27 report by Cornell Belcher, polling consultant for the Democratic National Committee, which bases its findings on a survey of 489 black voters in Maryland conducted last month.
The report, given to The Washington Post this week, drills into a topic that has emerged as a key focus of this year's U.S. Senate contest in Maryland: race.
In 2002, Steele became the first African American elected to statewide office in Maryland, and he has designed his Senate campaign to cut into the black support that has traditionally flocked to Democrats.
More than a half-dozen Democrats are vying for the open seat being vacated by Paul S. Sarbanes (D), including the former head of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume.
Maryland Democratic Party Executive Director Derek B. Walker said the study verified what, internally, party strategists had already concluded: that African American voters who have served as a reliable base for generations cannot be taken for granted.
"It confirms that in this day and age, everyone expects us to do more than just rest on history," Walker said. "We knew we were going to have to engage. But we also know it will be easier for us to forge that relationship because we're right on the issues."
If the findings of the poll are correct, they paint a somewhat different vision of the black electorate from what has been commonly understood to this point, said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Bositis said nothing in his research suggests that an African American Republican will be able to grab a significant segment of the black vote.
The DNC survey finds that 22 percent of black voters support Steele when matched against a "generic" Democrat.
"There's just no way it's that high," Bositis said, noting that Steele's performance among black voters in the 2002 election did not approach that number. "If he was that much of a draw then it's doubtful he would only have received 13 percent of the black vote."
There are other aspects of the survey, though, that Bositis says are consistent with national findings. Among them: that young black men represent a voting bloc far less loyal to Democrats. It also finds more support for Steele in Baltimore than in Prince George's County, more backing among churchgoers, and stronger support among those without a college degree.
In an interview in his State House office yesterday, Steele clutched the DNC report like a football coach who just got his hands on the opposing team's playbook. He said a copy "landed on our doorstep" in the past week.
"This explains everything," he said. "They're afraid of what I represent. They're afraid of the fact that African American voters have options, and I'm one of them."
Steele focused on two aspects of the document: the finding that a high percentage of black voters have connected with his message and the recommendation that the Democrats attack him early.
"Voters need to know they're trying to make me into something I'm not," Steele said.
He deflected questions about a potential vulnerability exposed in the report. A message that resonated with black voters identified Steele as "George W. Bush's hand-picked candidate," the survey found. It's a message Democrats have tried to exploit. Even as Walker discussed the findings, he pointed to a photograph hanging in his office -- it shows Steele and Bush arm in arm.
The poll finds that only 8 percent of black voters in Maryland approve of the president's performance. And it signals that early support Steele has received from Bush and his advisers will rub black voters the wrong way.
"Connecting Steele to national Republicans . . . can turn Steele into a typical Republican in the eyes of voters, as opposed to an African American candidate," it says.
That has been the aim of the Democrats in the race. In a statement yesterday, an aide to Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said he found "no surprises in this poll."
"Like the vast majority of Marylanders, African Americans know that the Bush-Steele agenda is wrong for our state and our nation," said Oren Shur, the Cardin campaign spokesman.
Mfume advisers, however, said the survey should sound alarms.
"There's significance there," said Mfume strategist Walter Ludwig. "Everybody up and down the ticket needs to make sure African Americans don't feel like they're being taken for granted."
Other Democrats in the race include A. Robert Kaufman, Allan Lichtman, Josh Rales, Dennis Rasmussen and Lise Van Susteren.
Steele says he will fight Democratic efforts to frame the campaign around national issues. His campaign Web site and literature do not identify his political party and do not mention his long and close ties to the White House.
"I am independent in thought," he said. "What I'm about is what's important to Marylanders."
I wonder what his message is.