Campaigning in a changing nation
Today’s topic: How are the changed demographics of the electorate making this presidential race different from past ones? Has either Barack Obama or John McCain capitalized effectively on the new demographics? And have they shifted the race away from the traditional battlegrounds (e.g., Ohio, “Reagan Democrats”)? Previously, Crayton and Welch discussed the candidates’ appeal to voters.
Obama appeals to a changing nation
Point: Kareem Crayton
One element of this campaign that has left me with decidedly positive reactions is the extent to which these national tickets reflect the kinds of demographic changes that the rest of America has been experiencing for quite some time. It’s hard to believe that there was a time not so long ago that being a young white Catholic guy running for president was out of the norm in American politics. As the old church hymn goes, we’ve come a mighty long way.
In my view, this election marks the start of an era that will feature more diverse candidates up and down the ticket. This great country is not racially monochromatic (it never has been), so I see much progress in the fact that we are starting to embrace candidates who more fully represent the diversity we see every day.
Perhaps rightly, Barack Obama has received great attention in this regard. If there has been a more multiracial family than his in politics, I certainly do not know about it. You are likely aware of the story about his Kenyan father meeting his white mother from Kansas, but that current of multiracial and multinational identity extends deeper into his family. My politically active friends in the Asian American community remind me that some of Obama’s in-laws hail from the Indian subcontinent. And I got a kick out of the discovery that Obama is a distant relative of Vice President Dick Cheney (second only in irony to the familial tie between Al Sharpton and the late Strom Thurmond). I haven’t yet heard any stories showing Obama’s blood lines in the Latino community, but there are still a few weeks left in the campaign. In America, anything is possible.
It’s just as important to note John McCain’s racially diverse family, which means far more politically for anybody running in a Republican primary (remember South Carolina in 2000?). I was actually quite moved to hear Cindy McCain passionately speak to the Republican National Convention about how her daughter, Bridget (who was born in Bangladesh), came into their family. While reporters pondered what McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin revealed about his character, I wondered what having Bridget as his daughter indicated about him. If nothing else, this was the first GOP convention that I didn’t have to carefully scan the crowd of delegates to find some brown people.
I don’t mean to suggest that this development is only relevant in an aesthetic or emotional sense. The two modern, more complex American stories ought to make us feel good about our country. But they also should remind us about something significant that is happening in the electorate. These campaigns are built to win elections, after all.
Let’s turn to the electoral map, which shows the six or seven states that remain toss-ups. As I mentioned on Monday, the map looks pretty tough for McCain, who’s fighting to stay competitive in states that he should have already secured by now. Obama is closer to the 270 electoral votes needed to win because he appeals to the voters in states that have become younger and browner. Take two of the most notable examples, Virginia and Colorado. McCain must win both of these states to get to the White House, yet he faces electorates in each that increasingly lean toward the Democrats.
Virginia’s change centers mostly on the Commonwealth’s northern counties that serve as suburbs to Washington. Once upon a time, my more liberal friends working in the nation’s capital would hesitate to go into Virginia even to use National Airport (they dared not call it Reagan Airport). But that time, for the most part, is over. Nowadays, they commute from cities such as Rosslyn and Alexandria. Many of these same areas are now home to an increasingly large concentration of Latino residents. Their presence has shifted the population center of the state northward, just as it has shifted the ideological center toward the Democrats.
Colorado has seen many of the same demographic shifts. Among other things, the housing boom attracted many former Californians seeking a more affordable (or, for those coming from L.A., a less traffic-filled) lifestyle. The growth in the Latino community throughout the state has been even more remarkable. Just a few years ago, the U.S. Census reported (pdf) that the share of Coloradans who describe themselves as “Hispanic” is about 20% -- the same as in Florida. These two changes have largely blunted the electoral strength in conservative strongholds like Colorado Springs -- home to the conservative group Focus on the Family. While the rise of Democrats in this state is also linked to the embarrassments of leaders in the social conservatism movement, it is hard to deny how much the complexion of the populace has prompted this shift.
In both Virginia and Colorado, Democratic candidates successfully forged coalitions between these groups and longtime supporters to defeat Republicans. Obama deserves credit for using his hefty war chest to identify and register many of these new voters, something John Kerry never did in 2004. The major task that lies ahead for Team Obama is getting these new voters out to the polls. According to most reports, the campaign has exceeded its registration targets in both states and claims a greater share of the first-time voters. With the overwhelming support that Obama enjoys among younger voters (polling suggests that he leads McCain 65% to 30%) and among African Americans (where he polls more than 90% against McCain), the last 30 days should be a period of executing traditional get-out-the-vote strategies -- something Democrats are generally good at.
As I said earlier, this election marks the beginning of an era. I doubt that another national ticket will feature all white males for a while. Why? Future tickets that want to win will need to appeal to diverse communities. Take a look at this graph, which charts the shift of congressional seats (and electoral votes) from 1990 to 2000. The states gaining seats are places such as Virginia and Colorado -- along with California, Texas and Florida. While these electorates are not all becoming solidly Democratic, they are certainly becoming browner and more ideologically complex.
This is part of a larger reapportionment trend over the last century or so. The regions of the country that are gaining more people -- and therefore political power -- are the South and West. These are the most racially diverse regions in the country, and they will very likely remain so. By contrast, areas in the northeast and Midwest are simply not keeping pace with that rate of growth and are therefore losing electoral votes. National candidates whose personal stories and policies speak to these more diverse communities are more likely to succeed. If I’m right about this, this election may well be the last one in which the Joe Six Packs of Pennsylvania and Ohio are at the center of the campaign’s attention.
Kareem Crayton is an associate professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California. He is an expert on election law and serves as a consultant for redistrictinggame.com.
There are more important qualities than identity
Counterpoint: Matt Welch
I’m old enough to remember when Frank Robinson became the first black manager in baseball, which, if memory serves -- yep! -- was the same year that Rams quarterback James Harris was named MVP of the Pro Bowl. Back then, it seemed perfectly plausible to my sunny young brain that of course we’d see tons of black people in positions of sporting authority because the country’s attitudes were clearly shifting (thanks in part to increased economic liberty) and sports, like business and politics, is by definition a zero-sum meritocracy: Whatever strategy or puts you in best position to win will ultimately prevail.
But it would take at least two decades (and arguably more) before the first observation you’d hear about a black coach or quarterback would stop being about his “historic” skin color, so my default optimism about a country that until semi-recently allowed legalized racism proved premature -- as, alas, I think is true for your doubt “that another national ticket will feature all white males for a while.”
The game of politics especially is built to an always-astonishing degree on tribal affiliation (whether based on ethnicity, religion, cultural affinity or political philosophy), mixed with fear of the other. It’s also based, more prosaically, on voter registration. And it’s there more than anywhere else that the case for the ultimate Tiger Woodsification of politics breaks down, or at least cautions us that reality will lag behind hope by a decade or so (assuming for the moment the not-necessarily-assumption-worthy notion that more nonwhite male presidential candidates is by definition a good thing).
We’ve been hearing about a post- Pete Wilson Latino wave of registered voters in California for how long now? Yet according to the Public Policy Institute of California (pdf), “Latinos make up about 32% of California’s adult population but only 15% of the registered voters most likely to turn out in elections.” The same is true for the rest of the country: In November 2006, according to the Census Bureau, white non-Hispanics were 74.5% of the voting-age population but 78.5% of the registered voters. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians, on the other hand, each punched below their demographic weight at the voting booth
My guess is that we’ll continue to have white male candidates for many of the same reason we have so many white male political commentators and white male politicians across every level of government -- because the active consumers of politics are disproportionately white and male (and old!). Deep-seated traditions, whether good or ill, take more than simple demographics to change. Maybe Obama will be the one to change that calculation, but I’d guess not.
Why? Because the growing elephant in the demographic room is the Latino vote, and there really isn’t a terrific amount of Latino-specific difference between the two senators running for president. McCain, for all my beefs with the man, is as much of an anti-Pete Wilson as former border-state governor George W. Bush (a president who, I think, gets little to no credit for making his Cabinet “look more like America” than his “first black president” predecessor). McCain has a visceral disgust toward xenophobia aimed at Spanish-speaking immigrants, and even though I think his signature Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill was a bureaucratic, illiberal sausage stew by the time it came for a vote, it’s clear that “his heart was in the right place.”
Or was it? One wearisome axiom of this line of discussion is that what seems to matter most is either personal motivation or ethnic and gender identity. Those factors are not the primary or even secondary qualifications I look for in a leader of the free world, and I don’t think I’m alone (see all those white males above). I am super happy that Obama, if he wins, will by his mere existence in the Oval Office radically change the terms of the 20th century’s mostly noxious racial debate. But as a voter, I’m much more concerned about, say, his relentless China-baiting and anti-furriner rhetoric, which he engaged in both of his set-piece speeches this year in Germany and after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. scandal. Obama may embody some truly transformative post-racial American idyll -- and I say that genuinely -- but I care more that he’s campaigned more energetically against free trade than any Democrat in at least 12 years.
At the risk of sounding like Stephen Colbert only without the wicked satire, I think we will have truly moved on to a new place in our country’s racial and ethnic discourse when voters from each minority are not assumed to vote in mass blocs. With the withering of most covert and nearly all overt racism in major-party politics, that day is foreseeable on the horizon. But like black baseball managers in 1975, it’s going to take more than one to change the way people act and think.
Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason and author of “McCain: The Myth of a Maverick.”
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