Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Democrats Stalk Elusive White Vote

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October 19, 2004
c.Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Every day, America becomes less white. What that means, according to the common wisdom, is that Republicans had better start doing better with black and Hispanic voters or get used to losing. But this wisdom obscures a greater truth: In 2004, and for the foreseeable future, the white vote remains the big enchilada, the focus of both parties’ efforts and the key to victory.
“Whites will determine the next president,” said demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution and the University of Michigan. He has calculated that while non-Hispanic whites are 69 percent of the population,they will _ because of higher rates of citizenship, registration and turnout _ make up nearly 80 percent of the electorate in November and 86 percent of voters in 17 critical battleground states.
For Republicans and the Bush campaign, white voters remain not only their base but, in the face of what appears to be very limited success in expanding their appeal to black and brown voters, their most fertile territory for gaining the marginal increases in support and turnout that they need to keep the White House. Republicans have done it before. The party’s great triumphs in the 1980s were built on much bigger margins of white voters than they have had since.
Republicans’ success with white voters is built around their appeal to white men. For 30 years, Republicans have made their party a home for white males who felt neglected as the Democrats, beginning in the 1960s, became the party of equal rights for women and blacks, according to Ashley Grosse, a Washington State University political scientist who is writing a book on the phenomenon titled “White Flight: The Exodus of White Men From the Democratic Party.”
“It looks like the Daddy Party,” said Grosse of the Republicans.
Meanwhile, Democrats, who can count on winning huge victories among Hispanic and especially black voters, are necessarily focused on trying to repeat Bill Clinton’s success in competing for white votes in a way that neither Al Gore nor the Democratic nominees immediately preceding Clinton could.
It helps explain why the Democrats chose John Kerry, a candidate who more than any Democratic nominee since John F. Kennedy projects an image as a man’s man _ Navy hero, hunter, risk-taking athlete.
In the virtual tie of the 2000 election, Gore won 42 percent of the white vote and Bush, 53 percent. Gore was able to win the popular vote by claiming 90 percent of the black vote, more than two-thirds of the Hispanic vote (while, crucially, losing Florida’s large, strongly Republican Cuban vote), and more than half of the Asian vote, which had gone Republican in the previous two national elections. In general, the Asian vote is too small to show up reliably in polls.
Kerry appears to be on track to repeat, or closely approximate, Gore’s success with minority voters. What is not clear is whether he can repeat Clinton’s feat of coming within three points of Bob Dole or a percentage point of George H.W. Bush among white voters.
When Kerry was riding high in early July, he was doing slightly better among whites than Gore did in 2000, according to the Gallup Poll. But, as of Gallup’s most recent survey in early September, Kerry was running a little bit less well than Gore did among whites and had fallen slightly behind Bush.
Whites, of course, come in all sizes and shapes. Democrats do quite well with Jews, and, when Democrats are winning, with Catholics, but they fare poorly with white Protestants.
While Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush whomped Democrats among white women, Clinton and Gore competed effectively for their votes, and were especially popular among single white females. Since Reagan, however, white males have proved to be the Democrats’ true Achilles’ heel.
Location also matters. Clinton and Gore both won among whites in the Northeast. But Democrats have consistently lost the white vote in the South in a presidential election since Barry Goldwater beat Lyndon Johnson in much of the region in 1964, according to Emory University political scientist Merle Black, the co-author with his brother, Earl, of “The Rise of Southern Republicans.”
And Democrats’ performance with white males in the South has been especially dismal. In 2000, Bush beat Gore, a Tennessean, among white Southerners by 73 percent to 26 percent among men and 64 percent to 35 percent among women.
There is no reason to believe that Kerry will improve on that performance, according to Black, which is why Kerry probably cannot even compete in North Carolina, the home state of his running mate, Sen. John Edwards. Back in July, when Kerry was doing his best, Gallup found him trailing Bush by six points in a three-way race with Ralph Nader in North Carolina, claiming only 32 percent of the white vote.
At the same time, Kerry is doing quite well in polls in New England and the Pacific Northwest, among the whiter parts of America. In the Midwestern battleground, white sentiment can shift state to state. In the most recent Gallup snapshot of Iowa, where the electorate is 96 percent white, Kerry was winning 50 percent of that vote and was leading Bush by six points in late August. But in neighboring Missouri, Gallup’s survey in early September placed Bush 14 points ahead, with Kerry drawing only 36 percent of white support.
In July, John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, co-authors of “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” wrote a piece in The New Republic titled “White Flight: Bush Loses His Base.”
In their analysis of Gallup results from the spring, Judis, a senior editor at the magazine, and Teixeira, who writes a weekly online column, Public Opinion Watch, for The Century Foundation, found a narrowing in Bush’s lead among white working-class voters, the bulk of the electorate in key states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Missouri. They attributed that narrowing gap in part to the souring of views toward the conduct of the war on Iraq.
But in the months since, according to pollster John Zogby, the political terrain has shifted, to Kerry’s clear detriment, toward a focus on the war on terrorism. According to Zogby, Kerry has a double-digit lead among voters who name the economy, health care, education and the war in Iraq as their prime concern. But among voters who are most concerned about terrorism _ a group that includes more than its share of white males _  Bush wins by more than 40 points.
“If Kerry focuses attention on the economy, health care and the conduct of the war in Iraq, he wins,” said Zogby. “If the discussion is going to settle on the war on terrorism, then he loses.”
In part because of the temper of the times, post-Sept. 11, both campaigns have pursued the white male vote with what appears to be unusual abandon.
When Kerry strode to the stage of the Democratic Convention in Boston to accept the party nomination, he was flanked by Navy comrades from his Vietnam service. He opened his acceptance speech, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”
For Republicans, according to Grosse, “it’s been 30 years of code words, talking very subtly about `the working man,’ `traditional values,’ `welfare queens.”’
The New York convention was no exception, said Grosse, only they were no longer talking in code. There was California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, former Mr. Universe and Hollywood action figure, deriding the Democrats as “girlie men.”
“Now the machismo is completely unveiled,” said Grosse.
At the same time, the Republicans managed to make Kerry, who was wounded in Vietnam, appear weak, and Bush, who avoided serving there, strong.
“It’s amazing,” said Grosse. “It shows it’s their game and they are much better at it.”
According to Ed Kilgore, policy director for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, the Republicans are running against long-dated stereotypes of a Democratic Party that the DLC worked hard to change.
“The Democratic platform for the first time endorsed the Second Amendment. Kerry made very clear he is a gun owner. He is not for the licensing of guns like Gore was. He’s opposed to gay marriage,” Kilgore said. And, Kilgore said, Kerry promises, if anything, to be tougher than Bush in prosecuting the war on terror.
“There’s nothing about Kerry himself or his record that lends itself to weakness among white men,” he said. “His problem, his challenge, is to break through the effort to make this some sort of referendum on the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s.”
But, said Black, to white males, particularly in the South, Kerry’s failure to act squarely to squash the attacks on his Vietnam service was telling. By early September, Gallup found that respondents were nearly twice as likely to consider Bush than Kerry a “strong and decisive leader.”
“They don’t see Kerry as a leader; they don’t see Kerry as commander in chief,” said Black. “Bush looks more like a leader.”

Written by jonathantilove

September 5, 2010 at 5:24 am

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