By JONATHAN TILOVE
December 22, 1998
c. Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Attention Republicans. The year 2000 census will confirm that America’s Sunbelt is increasingly the nation’s black and tan belt, the region with the largest and fastest-growing black, Latino and Asian populations.
The changing complexion of the Sunbelt is, according to University of Michigan demographer William Frey, a consequence of what will prove to be a record decade of immigration _ overwhelmingly Latino and Asian _ in the 1990s, along with a record decade of black movement South from other parts of the country.
And, for Republicans, these new census numbers will herald a developing demographic dilemma: A party built upon amassing large white majorities is facing an electorate that is becoming less white each year, especially across the southern and western tier of states that have been crucial to GOP presidential victories since Richard Nixon.
Already, from Georgia to California, the changing demographics are driving a wedge through the Republican Party on racially charged issues like affirmative action and immigration, and ushering in a new era of racial politics in which the advantage increasingly goes to the Democrats.
Beginning in the 1960s Republicans used race to fracture the New Deal coalition and bring white Protestants in the South and white ethnics in the North into a new Republican majority coalition. The Democratic party was portrayed as the party of minorities, beholden to blacks, and whites fled.
But now it may be the Democrats who are gaining the allegiance of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate, the new immigrant populations, most of whom are Latino and Asian. Democrats portray Republicans as the party of America’s eroding white majority, which on its face is just what it looks like.
Of the 64 black, Hispanic and Asian members of the current Congress, only five are Republican. (And they were the only nonwhite members of Congress to vote to impeach President Clinton.)
And, every time Republicans make an effort to broaden their appeal beyond their white base, they risk looking like panderers or sounding like Democrats.
“Republicans are now in a huge bind,” said Frederick Lynch, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College in California and an expert on racial politics. “If they want to broaden their base among Latinos they are going to have to dump immigration and affirmative action reform, and that’s going to alienate the base.”
On one side are those like Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who by steering clear of issues like affirmative action and immigration, speaking Spanish, and campaigning strenuously for Latino votes, showed in his recent landslide re-election that a Republican could win nearly half that vote, albeit against feeble opposition and in an election in which Latino turnout was exceptionally low..
“The shrewder Republicans understand that it is much easier to make a living if you don’t have to get that overwhelming white majority all the time,” said Earl Black, a leading authority on Southern politics, who teaches at Rice University.
“It’s the future of the party, it’s the future of the country,” said Mike Madrid, the 27-year-old political director of the California Republican Party in the election just past, who now works for the Latino Republican minority leader of the California Assembly.
On the other side are fist-in-your-face conservatives like Patrick J. Buchanan, who argue that unless Republicans rally their white base, and move to place a moratorium on the floodtide of immigration, the Republican Party is facing a “demographic death sentence.”
“If the Republican Party doesn’t deal with immigration, in eight to 10 years, the Republican Party at the national level may be a permanent minority party,” warns Buchanan, who says many immigrants are natural Democrats not just because of race but because of class. Many, he notes, especially those from Mexico and Central America, are poor.
“As (the comedian) Gallagher said the other night on Politically Incorrect, `There aren’t too many Republicans sneaking across the border,”’ said Claremont McKenna’s Lynch. “The Republican Party is not the party of the public sector, and these people are going to need the public sector.”
Meanwhile, increasing black migration from the rest of America to the Deep South, along with the movement there of racially moderate whites, is undermining the racial politics the Republicans used so effectively, beginning in the 1960s, to swing the region from solidly Democratic to strongly Republican today.
“One of the problems the Republicans have in the South is that the old-line racist population is dying out,” said David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “They’re being replaced not only by black and white migrants from the Midwest and North but even by a younger generation of whites that are not as redneck. The old racial politics just isn’t going to work.”
“Georgia Republicans finally learned this year that racially divisive politics not only no longer works, it is counterproductive, and that rule could be applied across the South,” said that state’s Republican chairman, Rusty Paul.
Paul was referring to a last-minute “anti-quota” television ad that Republican gubernatorial candidate Guy Millner’s campaign ran to shore up support among older white men.
But Paul believes the ad, coming on the heels of the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor’s shrill attacks on Atlanta’s black mayor, only served to drive up black turnout, which exceeded white turnout, annoy some white newcomers who thought they had moved to a place “too busy to hate,” and bury Millner’s candidacy.
“We went from basically (black voters) not liking us because we ignored them to despising us because we threatened them,” said Paul, who had worked assiduously for years to “build bridges” to the black community, only to see his party “set fire to those bridges.”
But Joshua Micah Marshall, associate editor of the liberal journal The American Prospect, argues that Republican appeals to racial animus have been too intrinsic to their appeal to be simply dropped without alienating as least some of those it brought into the fold.
“For the Republicans, the chickens are coming home to roost,” said Marshall. “This is the bad end for all the traction they got in the 1970s and ’80s over school busing and affirmative action, all the resentment politics that were corralled into the party.”
In North Carolina, U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a very conservative Republican, didn’t invoke race the way Millner did, but he too lost, winning only 8 percent of the black vote, 1 percent less than Millner did in Georgia.
Faircloth is an ally of the state’s senior senator Jesse Helms, who as much as any politician alive represents the skillful Republican exploitation of white racial fears.
By contrast, Faircloth’s soft-pedaling of racial issues this year may have helped him to do much better than Helms had in 1996 with the substantial fifth of the electorate that moved to North Carolina in the last six years. But Faircloth did not do nearly as well as Helms with long-time residents of North Carolina and that cost him the election.
“Faircloth did not do what some people expected him to do in order to energize, in polite terms, the anti-quota forces, the Jessecrats,” said Seth Effron, a North Carolina political analyst.
The Millner and Faircloth defeats do not signal a reversal of Republican dominance in the South. But their experiences indicate how Republicans can now find themselves politically damned if they do invoke race, and damned if they don’t.
Buchanan laments too many Republicans are afraid of the fine art of “positive polarization” that Nixon, for whom Buchanan worked, used to assemble his majority coalition.
But Buchanan recognizes that the America Nixon reshaped into a Republican majority was demographically ripe. The foreign-born percentage of the United States was at an all-time low of less than 5 percent in 1970. The descendants of the great wave of immigration at the turn of the century had been absorbed and economically and socially assimilated during the long stretch of severely restricted immigration _ from the mid-1920s to the 1960s. They were ready to be Republicanized.
And in 1970, America was 83 percent white. By 1990, however, America was 76 percent white and, according to the projections, by 2000 America will be less than 72 percent white, with a foreign-born population of 10 percent.
It is part of a slow but steady demographic shift, fueled primarily by immigration, that, according to projections by the National Research Council, will yield a nation barely half white in the middle of the next century.
That is still a very long way off, and because it takes years for immigrants to become citizens and participate in politics in great numbers, whites will remain the dominant electoral force for generations. Texas may only be 56 percent white in the year 2000, but said University of Texas government professor Walter Dean Burnham, whites will maintain political dominance, “long after I’m dead and, I suspect, long after you’re dead.”
However, with the two national parties in rough political equilibrium, even modest changes in the makeup of the electorate can be decisive.
Between 1950 and 1980, according to Frey, the University of Michigan demographer, the Sunbelt gained 26 million whites and four million nonwhites. But, between 1980 and 1997, it gained 14.5 million whites and 20.5 million nonwhites.
“The growth of the Sunbelt in the 1950s and 1960s and even into the 1970s was pioneered by white middle-class soon-to-be suburbanites, whereas the Sunbelt growth in the last two decades is to a larger degree black and brown and on varied, different rungs of the economic ladder,” said Frey, who is also a senior fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.
“The old Sunbelt was tailor-made for traditional Republican values, which in recent years have tended to turn off a growing segment of the Sunbelt’s newer population,” said Frey.
As of 2000, according to the census estimates, 19 states and the District of Columbia will be less than three-quarters white, including the 14 contiguous states stretching from Maryland to Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. (The other five states that will be less than 75 percent white will be the big immigrant destinations of New York, New Jersey and Illinois, along with Alaska and Hawaii.)
By 2000, two states _ California and New Mexico _ will join Hawaii in being less than half white.
These demographic changes come at a time in American politics when the two parties are sharply polarized by race.
This fall, on their way to losing five House seats, the Republicans were claiming 57 percent of the white vote, and 65 percent of the white Protestant vote in House races, according to exit poll results compiled by The New York Times. By contrast, Republican House candidates won just 11 percent of the black vote, 44 percent of the Asian vote and 37 percent of the Hispanic vote.
In winning the California governorship in November, Democrat Gray Davis, according to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, won 51 percent of the white vote. But he crushed Republican Dan Lungren with the rest of the electorate, claiming 71 percent of the Latino vote, 76 percent of the black vote and 65 percent of the Asian vote.
More significantly, the combined Asian-Latino-black proportion of the California electorate, according to the Los Angeles Times exit poll, was now 34 percent _ twice what it had been only four years earlier. (A Voter News Service exit poll showed a smaller minority share of the electorate.)
It is a transformation of California’s body politic that was accelerated by what Frey has found to be a complementary, large-scale white exodus out of California. The result, according to census projections, is that there will not only be 3 million more Hispanics and 1.3 million more Asians living in California in 2000 than there were in 1990, but 1.6 million fewer whites.
The mountain states, where many of those whites moved, have become even more politically Republican in recent years. But California, home state of Republican presidents Nixon and Reagan, twice voted for Clinton by big margins.
For many analysts, outgoing California Gov. Pete Wilson’s advocacy of Proposition 187 to end public aid to illegal immigrants and Proposition 209 to end race-conscious hiring and school admissions are to blame for Republicans doing poorly with nonwhite voters ever since.
But Wilson won re-election by a large margin while pressing 187. Meanwhile Lungren, the Republican candidate for governor of California this year, refused to support a popular ballot initiative to end bilingual education, and did get a significantly bigger share of the Latino vote than Bob Dole received in California two years earlier against Bill Clinton. But it was still only 23 percent of that vote, and Lungren was soundly defeated.
Unfortunately for the Republicans, doing less poorly with a rapidly growing segment of the electorate still leaves them sinking, if more slowly, in demographic quicksand.