For Democrats, minority voting power takes center stage

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.

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?

Race plays key role

Race has played a key role in American politics for as long as there have been Democrats and Republicans.

Fred Garrett, a black South Carolinian, recalls how his parents voted Republican, the party of Lincoln, before the Great Depression. But when Franklin Roosevelt offered a New Deal, they took it and shifted their loyalties to the Democrats. Most blacks who overcame social and legal barriers to voting cast their ballots the same way.

By some measurements, Garrett – an evangelical, churchgoing, anti-abortion social conservative with a successful mortuary business in the GOP stronghold of Greenville – would make a natural Republican. But he says the GOP left him and his black brethren “by the wayside” long ago, and he doesn’t see any evidence that that will change anytime soon.

“I never have voted Republican nationally,” says Garrett, 83, whose first ballot was for FDR as a Navy enlisted man toward the end of World War II. “I started to vote for Eisenhower one time, but I didn’t.”

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.

But with the rise of newly converted Republicans like Sen. Strom Thurmond and their efforts to thwart civil rights legislation, the GOP could manage only 6 percent of the black vote in 1964.

“And that’s when the change was over,” Bositis says.

Working class

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.

“The vast majority of Hispanics were, are and remain working class,” says Gary M. Segura, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Washington. “And so, not surprisingly, that means that they have economic interests, which are historically more coincident with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party.”

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,” says 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.”

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 because 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.