Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Center for Politics & Public Affairs

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Series I: Differences in Black and White

April 9, 2003

THE PHILADELPHIA MAYORAL RACE:  DIFFERENCES IN BLACK AND WHITE

It is an accepted truism in campaigns that include an incumbent office holder that success or failure is predicted best by how voters rate an incumbent's performance in office. The stronger the performance of the incumbent, the less relevant the challenger becomes. It is often party affiliation and strength of partisanship that are the most critical measures in evaluating incumbent performance. 

In Philadelphia, 75-percent of the registered voters are Democrats, and about 20-percent are Republican. Yet, the March 2003 Keystone Poll showed the two mayoral candidates, incumbent Democratic mayor John Street and Republican challenger Sam Katz, in a close race--with Katz holding a 44 to 40-percent lead. The Street/Katz contest is a replay of the election four years ago when Street won a narrow victory (by fewer than 10,000 votes).

The closeness of the contest now, as four years ago, can be explained by the significance race plays in vote choice and not party affiliation as is true in most circumstances. In 1999, almost 70 percent of African-Americans reportedly voted for Street, the black Democratic candidate, while about the same proportion of whites supported Sam Katz, the white Republican candidate. Similarly, in the March Keystone Poll almost three-fourths of blacks say they plan to vote for Street, and a similar proportion of whites indicate they intend to vote for Katz.

So, why is party affiliation less important, and race more important, in the 2003 rematch between Street and Katz?  The answer most likely lies in differing evaluations of Mayor Street's performance--and in differing ideas about the importance of his administrative initiatives, i.e., the Street Administration's focus on specific issues.  African-Americans and whites have widely divergent views about the direction of the city, Mayor Street's performance, and his policy successes, as can be seen in the latest Keystone Poll.

  • Nearly three in five (57%) black residents believe the city is headed in the right direction versus less than two in five (37%) whites.

  • Nearly half (47%) of blacks believe that things in Philadelphia are better than they were four years ago, while another one in four (28%) say things are about the same as they were.  Only one in six (16%) whites believes that Philadelphia is a better place to live than it was four years ago--nearly half (44%) of all white residents believe the city is a worse place to live.

  • Almost three in five (58%) black residents say the Mayor has done an excellent or good job in office, while only one in five (22%) whites give him such a rating.

  • The differences between blacks and whites on the Mayor's performance in specific policy areas are striking. Blacks rate the Mayor's performance much better than whites on every policy area tested-- improving public education, helping to create jobs, reducing taxes, fighting crime, improving trash collection, improving neighborhoods, improving the city's financial condition, and helping to create new jobs.  In addition, a majority or near majority of blacks give the Mayor high marks for fighting crime, improving neighborhoods, and creating new jobs.

The perspectives that blacks and whites have on the performance of incumbent Mayor John Street are significant, indeed.  And the different performance evaluations are reasonably based in part on different perceptions about what is important for the Mayor to do.  For instance, nearly half (44%) of African-Americans believe that crime is the biggest problem facing their neighborhoods, compared to about one-third of whites (31%).

Four years ago similar differences existed but did not result in a polarized city--though blacks and whites thought differently about many components of the contest and the candidates, the campaign was waged without campaign rhetoric that might have permanently exacerbated race relations in the city.  Once again the high road will leave the city and its residents a better place in which to govern and to live.