It’s a group whose size is difficult to quantify, but one that both candidates have deemed important enough to devote time to courting.
While McCain and Barack Obama both support the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and a current bill in Congress that would strengthen its implementation, a key selling point for advocates for the disabled, they disagree on the Community Choice Act.
That bill, proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and co-sponsored by Obama, would expand government funds presently available for institutional care to also cover home-based services.
McCain opposes the bill, and on July 25 the DNC quickly pulled together a conference call with reporters to attack McCain on the issue.
“He has refused to listen to us on a critical issue to our community: the right to live at home in the community,” said Marca Bristo, former Chair of the National Council on Disability. “The Community Choice Act would allow that. Obama will give us choice and help us liberate the people in nursing homes.”
The conference call may have been partly a defensive maneuver because it happened the day before McCain addressed the American Association of People with Disabilities conference via satellite, on the July 26 anniversary of the passage of the ADA. Obama dispatched Harkin, a longtime leader on disability issues, as a surrogate.
McCain told the conference that he supports the idea of returning people to their own homes, but is concerned about the potential cost, a stance his campaign has since reiterated.
The jockeying by the candidates and parties surrounding the AADP conference was just part of the candidates’ ongoing efforts to reach people with disabilities.
Both Obama and McCain have staffers working on outreach to the community. Obama has released a plan for improving the lives of people with disabilities and issued a lengthy statement commemorating the anniversary of the passage of the ADA. McCain enthusiastically praised the ADA in his speech. Both candidates have online groups for supporters with disabilities, and both have pledged to create a position in their administration focusing on disability issues.
But while it’s clear that both candidates see the community as one worth courting, it’s unclear just how many people with disabilities are actually voting on the basis of that identity or what affect the outreach will have.
The American Association of People with Disabilities claims that there are 37.5 million disabled people who are eligible to vote, using a very broad definition that includes learning disabilities.
But historically, people with disabilities have not necessarily identified or voted primarily with that identity. Since disability occurs across all demographic groups in the United States, the disabled generally mirror the population as a whole in their political preferences.
In 2004, a post-election Zogby poll commissioned by the New York State Independent Living Council, a disability rights advocacy group, found people with disabilities voted virtually identically to the population as a whole. Eighteen percent of disabled respondents said that their vote was “based on a candidate’s support or opposition to an issue that impacts people with disabilities.” The poll also found that nine percent of people without disabilities said the same.
The poll, though, did not ask how this concern compared to more mainstream ones, such as the economy or the war in Iraq, or break down what respondents took the phrase “an issue that impacts disabilities” to mean.
To many it may be funding for research of their own condition or for embryonic stem cell research. Many disability rights activists oppose assisted suicide for the severely disabled, and spoke out against it in the case of Terri Schiavo.
Pollstes normally do not use disability as a demographic sub-group, so there is no publicly available data on the disability community’s leanings in this election, and both campaigns declined to discuss their internal polling. None of the independent pollsters or consultants contacted for this piece had ever polled disabled people or were aware of others having done so.
“I have never heard of anybody doing this,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic pollster. “It would require asking very sensitive questions in a survey which would lead respondents to hang up.”
Mark Mckinnon, who was until recently a senior strategist with the McCain campaign, said that he had never polled people with disabilities and that he didn’t think their voting priorities would differ from anyone else’s. “I think people with disabilities vote just like anyone else does,” said McKinnon. “I think they vote on big issues like war in Iraq and the economy like others.”
Jim Dickson, vice president of government affairs at the AADP, says that as with any constituency, whichever candidate speaks most forthrightly to the community’s issues has historically gained their vote. “It goes to the candidate who talks most about disability,” said Dickson.
In 1988, both candidates said they would sign the ADA, but after George H. W. Bush made a priority of it by pledging to do so in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, the disability vote shifted from Dukakis to Bush, according to Harris tracking polls conducted with the National Council on Disability — which also claimed that the disabled community made up a full 10 percent of the electorate.
McCain, who is partially disabled by injuries he received in Vietnam, may also benefit from a sense of solidarity within the disabled community, a subject McCain did not raise in his AADP speech. “I think the more people know that he has a disability, the more it is likely to help with this community,” said Dickson. However, issues are likely to trump identity, according to advocates such as Dickson, who point out that Bob Dole, who was disabled and who sponsored the ADA, lost the disability vote to Clinton.
“It was surprising that given Dole’s ADA sponsorship and disability [that he did not carry disabled voters],” said Dickson. “I think that was because Clinton was the first president to establish an office in the White House to work on disability. He had a very strong record. It was the first time we had seen anything like that.”
The DNC has been quicker to appeal to the new identity politics in the disability community than was its Republican counterpart. The DNC has a disability caucus and has a rule encouraging state delegations to bring a proportional number of people with disabilities to their national convention as delegates. Although the RNC has neither of those things, a spokesperson, Amber Wilkerson, said that they are working closely with the McCain campaign on outreach to the disability community.
“Many people with disabilities have domestic policy needs,” said Brad Williams of NYSILC. “The only party that is really addressing that is the Democratic Party and everyone in our community knows that.” Williams ticked off a long list of issues on which he says Democrats are more responsive to the disability community than Republicans, including housing, transportation, employment, education and, most importantly, he said, health care.
Congress spent $1 billion under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, making voting booths more accessible to people with disabilities. Advocates say that will pay off in higher turnout this fall.
On Thursday, Disaboom, an online community for people with disabilities, announced that it would be putting on programs to raise awareness of disability issues at the Democratic Nationa Convention. They hope to schedule programming at the RNC as well.
Although Disaboom's leaders identified mostly issues that tend to favor Democrats as the most important for the community — high unemployment, healthcare reform and the Community Choice Act — they said those issues have potential bipartisan appeal.
"Mainstreaming people with disabilities into the workforce means taking them off of welfare and into taxpaying," said Kim Dority, vice president of content for Disaboom. "Republicans could embrace that. It's not simply an opportunity for one party."