July 13, 2001

Census a clarion call for Democrats, GOP

As nation changes, parties are warned they need new tactics to woo voters

By Thomas B. Edsall
The Washington Post

July 8, 2001 -- Republican strategists, examining new census data and recent election returns, are warning that the electorate is moving steadily to the left and that the party needs to adopt new rhetoric and tactics to attract the growing number of working women, Hispanics, secular voters and socially tolerant, well-educated professionals.

Despite significant electoral gains by the GOP over the past decade, these Republican strategists said that long-term demographic changes in the country, if left unaddressed, could result in major Democratic gains.

"The left side of the spectrum is growing. Our side is shrinking," said Alex Castellanos, a GOP media consultant. "The Reagan coalition is not enough to win anymore. Reagan is a god. . . . But he's not enough. There is a post-Reagan demographic change."

Across the spectrum, among Republicans as well as Democrats, a reevaluation of strategy is underway, in large part stimulated by a flood of data from the 2000 Census. As they prepare for the 2002 and 2004 elections, both parties are looking for opportunities to create coalitions among the newly ascendant voting groups.

No clear consensus has emerged. Some Democrats, for instance, are worried that the strength of GOP voting in some of the fastest-growing regions could undermine their increased influence among various constituencies. However, what seems striking is the large number of Republicans strategists worried that the trends are working against the GOP.

If there is one shared view, it is an agreement on the central importance of Hispanic voters. But strategists on both sides also are looking to woo other constituencies — some, like suburban voters and women, already a target of both sides in recent elections — and others, like the rising numbers of non-religious voters, a newly emerging force.

Matthew Dowd, who orchestrated polling for the 2000 Bush campaign, is concentrating on the growing numbers of minority, Democratic-leaning voters, especially Hispanics. In his view, if every group — black, white and Hispanic — votes in 2004 as it did in 2000, President Bush will lose not only the popular vote, but also the electoral college.

"Republicans have to increase their percentage among blacks and certainly among Hispanics," Dowd said. "As a realistic goal, we have to get somewhere between 13 and 15 percent of the black vote and 38 to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote." In 2000, Bush got 9 percent of the black vote and 35 percent of the Hispanic vote.

In private, Republicans talk about adopting a "Hispanic judicial strategy."

"We will just put up Hispanic after Hispanic, and no matter what happens, it's a win-win for us. We get points if the judge is approved, and the Democrats look anti-Hispanic if they kill a nomination," a GOP tactician said.

Similarly, a Democratic strategist said his party should consider promoting blanket amnesty to working illegal immigrants, risking white backlash for the potential reward of gaining the loyalty of millions of prospective voters and their grateful relatives.

Dowd contended the rapidly growing block of non-Cuban Hispanics has turned such once-Republican-leaning states as Florida and Nevada into swing states, while strengthening Democratic voting in New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois. Over time, Dowd said, even such Republican-leaning states as Arizona, Colorado and Texas could move into the swing category as the Hispanic electorate gets stronger.

From 1990 to 2000, the Hispanic population surged by 10.4 million, from 22.4 million to 32.8 million. In contrast, the white non-Hispanic population grew by 8.6 million, from 188.3 million to 196.9 million. African Americans in 1990 were the nation's dominant minority at 29.3 million, 6.6 million more than the Hispanic community. By decade's end, blacks were on the verge of falling behind Hispanics, their population lead cut to 600,000.

Dowd cited census and Voter News Service exit poll data showing the Hispanic share of the electorate increasing from 3 percent to 7 percent from 1988 to 2000. In California, the Hispanic vote doubled from 7 percent to 14 percent over this period, with census data suggesting it could soon rise to 28 percent. In Texas, Hispanics made up 15 percent of the turnout and are 29 percent of the total population.

A ray of hope for the GOP, according to Dowd, is "as Hispanics rise from lower to middle class, they vote very similarly to whites," suggesting that as the Hispanic middle class grows, the Democratic advantage will decline.

Poll data provide partial support for Dowd's argument. Hispanic voters do become more Republican as their income rises, but Democrats retain an advantage through almost all Hispanic income groups except the small minority with incomes in excess of $100,000.

Bernd Schwieren, director of Strategic Information Services for the California Assembly Republican Caucus, is also concerned about Democratic trends and points to California as predictive of the rest of the country. "California is now leading the country into the new politics of the information age," he said. "The values and interests of `new economy' workers, minorities and professional women are shaping a new California information-age politics. They are the new swing voters, and they are trending Democrat."

California voters are in the forefront of the emergence of the rise of non-religious voters, a trend taking place nationally. National Election Studies polls show the number of people who say they have no religious beliefs or they believe in something other than the Christian or Jewish faiths tripling from 5 percent in 1972 to 16 percent in 1998. Although the percentage saying they regularly attend church has remained constant over the past 30 years at approximately 37 percent, the percentage saying they never go to church rose sharply from 14 percent to 33 percent from 1972 to 1998.

These church figures are bad news for the GOP: A Republican constituency — regular church attenders who voted for Bush over Vice President Al Gore by 61 percent to 38 percent — is not growing. At the same time, a Democratic constituency — non-churchgoers who voted for Gore 58 percent to 38 percent — is growing rapidly.

The nation's changing demographics have produced perhaps the most striking strategic shift in the thinking of Castellanos, a firm conservative who produced an anti-affirmative action commercial for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in 1996.

"The biggest change is the increasing political and economic independence of wo-men, soccer moms, diner moms and laptop moms," he said. Castellanos calls the new target constituency "care and fair voters." He said conservatism must change the language of its message from a "masculine" emphasis on "order" and "strength" to a more "feminine" focus on fairness, compassion and equality of opportunity.

The growing legions of working women, who voted for Gore over Bush by a 19 percentage point margin last year, have effectively reshaped the electorate.

"The vanity mirror on the new Jeep Cherokee is on the driver's side; it's a woman who has her hand on the steering wheel. Women control 85 percent of all personal household spending decisions. Women earn 98 cents for every dollar men do if you hold everything else constant," Castellanos said.

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the work-force participation rate of married women has nearly doubled, from 31.9 percent in 1960 to 61.2 percent in 1999, and for single women from 58.6 percent to 68.7 percent. For married men, the work-force participation rate fell from 89.2 percent to 77.5 percent from 1960 to 1999, and for single men there was a slight increase, from 69.8 percent to 73.4 percent.

Working women are much more likely to support Democrats (58 percent went for Gore, 39 percent for Bush) than women who do not work (52 percent supported Bush, 44 percent Gore).

There are dissenters, including some Democrats, from this vision of ascendant liberal forces.

Mark Gersh, a Democrat who runs the National Committee for an Effective Congress, sees a very different America from Castellanos and Dowd: If the voting patterns of the 50 fastest-growing counties with populations exceeding 100,000 are, as Gersh believes, emblematic of the nation's political future, the Democratic Party is headed toward trouble. In 2000, Bush won 45 of the fastest-growing counties and Gore five. Overall, Bush's margin in these counties was of landslide proportions: 3.17 million votes to 2.09 million, or 61.1 percent to 35.6 percent.

Michael Barone, a conservative analyst, is convinced the country in moving toward the GOP. "Demography is moving, slowly, toward the Bush nation," Barone wrote in the latest edition of his Almanac of American Politics. The counties on the outer edge of metropolitan areas "tend to vote strongly Republican, and, with their growth, they have produced Republican majorities almost large enough to offset the Democratic margins in heavily black or culturally liberal central cities."

Democrat Mark Penn, a key adviser to President Bill Clinton, focuses on the changing economic structure of the electorate. From 1992 to 2000, the percentage of families making more than $50,000 shot up from 32 percent to 53 percent, Penn notes. Suburban voters, the new battleground, have become a decisive plurality, with 43 percent of the electorate, compared with 29 percent urban and 28 percent rural.

A central element of Penn's argument is not that the country is moving leftward, but that the Democratic Party has to move to a more pro-business and less redistributionist stand if it is to win nationally.

For Republican strategists, the party's immediate future rests largely with Bush, and they say Bush's compassionate conservatism contains the answer to the GOP problem.

Richard Bond, a former GOP chairman, said: "We've taken white guys about as far as that group can go. We are in need of diversity, women, Latino, African American, Asian. The degree to which Bush and congressional Republicans can ground the notion of compassionate conservatism to appeal to women, Latinos, African Americans and Asians, that is where the future of the Republican Party is."

Reprinted from the Center for Immigration Studies 1522 K Street N.W., Suite 820 Washington, DC 20005-1202 center@cis.org www.cis.org

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