Minority Voting Power Takes Center Stage

Allen G. Breed, AP, January 12, 2008

With nomination contests in lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire settled, minority voting power now moves into the spotlight.

Historical realities suggest that blacks and Hispanics won’t play much of a role in determining the Republican Party presidential nominee. But this year’s Democratic primary and caucus schedule was designed specifically to give increased influence to minorities, particularly Latinos.

Voters in both groups are energized: Blacks by the early successes of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Latinos by the intense, sometimes xenophobic debate over immigration. But it’s far from clear how those influences will play off each other.

Nevada’s caucuses on Jan. 19 will give an early showcase of Hispanic voting. However, observers say the true impact of Latino influence might not be felt until the general election, notably in Western states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada—places where George Bush’s margin of victory in 2004 was razor-thin.

When South Carolina Democrats hold their primary on Jan. 26—the state GOP contest is Jan. 19—the choices of substantial numbers of black voters will be tallied for the first time in this election.

Energizing black voters

Obama’s stunning victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Iowa caucuses and strong second in New Hampshire’s primary showed he could win white votes. But some say the South Carolina contest offers a new test of his viability: Can he energize black voters in places where their numbers could help him win in November?

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In 1956, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was able to garner 39 percent of the black vote, notes Donald Bositis, a senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank in Washington, D.C.

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Latinos and Democrats

The historical association between the Democrats and the working class, coupled with the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic president, accounts for the Latino affiliation with that party—Florida Cubans being the great exception. Democratic candidate Bill Richardson, who cited JFK as one of his inspirations, showcased his Hispanic roots before he pulled out of the race Thursday.

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According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics are twice as likely to identify themselves as Democrat than Republican. For blacks, it’s 10 1/2 times.

“There is in the United States a racial tone to the political parties,” said Bernard N. Grofman, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of California, Irvine. It’s something “that nobody wants to talk about very much, because in some ways it’s really very, very embarrassing.”

‘Browning of America’ has blue hue

Both minority groups lag behind whites in voter registration. The latest census figures indicate that while 71 percent of voting-eligible whites are registered, the rate drops to 61 percent among blacks and 54 percent for Latinos.

The conventional wisdom has been that as the nation’s population moves toward a minority majority, its political complexion will become more Democratic. Or, as Grofman puts it, the “browning of America will result in the bluing.”

But in studying the South, Grofman—author of the voting-rights history “Quiet Revolution in the South”—found a correlation between the percentage of a state’s black voting population and increases in white support for Republican candidates.

Grofman notes there have been small but measurable Latino shifts toward the GOP as Hispanic homeownership rates, conversions to evangelical Protestantism and generational distance from immigration increase. And since many Latinos identify racially as white, he says we may see a “mimicking” of the electoral “white flight” from the Democratic Party he identified in the South.

A Hispanic-black divide is already showing in the nomination battle.

A California poll by the Field Research Corp. found Clinton’s lead over Obama had dropped from 25 percentage points in October to just 14 points late last month. However, the same survey gave Clinton a 20-point lead among Latinos, who comprise 14 percent of voters there.

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Voter registration surges among Latinos

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The first two Fridays of each month, the Democratic party sets up voter-registration tables outside the federal court chamber in Las Vegas where new citizens are sworn in.

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Latino registration rates in the state have risen from just 4 percent in 1996 to more than 10 percent. Given the “very anti-immigrant” stances taken by the state GOP, which adopted an English-only platform that would deny citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegals, Ramirez is confident that most of those political newcomers will be voting Democratic.

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Vanderbilt University Law School professor Carol M. Swain, author of “Black Faces, Black Interests,” is one African-American who won’t be voting for Obama—nor, likely, for any Democrat. She says none of the party’s candidates has articulated a position “that really takes into consideration the harm that’s being done to working-class Americans” by competition from illegal immigrants.

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But experts say many black voters may take the opposite tack when they cast ballots in South Carolina, where blacks make up about half of the Democratic electorate.

Not losing this time

Donald Aiesi, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., thinks turnout in the party primary there will be 4-to-1 black.

And he predicts that “the race pull” will be strong—even though, he adds, “I don’t think anybody’s going to talk to a pollster or anybody else and say, ‘Well, with me it’s ultimately the idea that my son or daughter could be elected.’”

Not all black voters agree. John H. Corbitt, Garrett’s pastor at the Springfield Baptist Church, doesn’t see it that way. Iowa notwithstanding, he’s leaning toward Clinton—partly because former President Bill Clinton was so good to blacks, but mostly because he thinks the New York senator can win in November. “Many of us are tired of being on the losing side.”

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