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.
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.