Racial Polarization In American Politics

Race plays a smaller role than ever in American life. Whether we look at business, popular culture, sports, the military or daily life in general, race has pretty much disappeared as an issue. This is largely true in politics, too, as activists on both the left (labor unions) and the right (the Tea Party movement) are integrated and are organized around ideology, not ethnicity–hence the popularity of figures like Herman Cain and Marco Rubio. Yet, to a disturbing degree, party identification in America remains tribal.

The point is illustrated by this Pew Research survey (via InstaPundit. The headline is “GOP Makes Big Gains among White Voters.”

While Republican gains in leaned party identification span nearly all subgroups of whites, they are particularly pronounced among the young and poor. A seven-point Democratic advantage among whites under age 30 three years ago has turned into an 11-point GOP advantage today. And a 15-point Democratic advantage among whites earning less than $30,000 annually has swung to a slim four-point Republican edge today.

That makes sense. The Obama administration has been a disaster for lower-income Americans and for young people, so it is no wonder that many are shifting to the GOP. As the Pew survey documents, the Republican Party now dominates among white Americans:

Yet overall, the Democrats continue to hold a slim lead in party identification among registered voters. How can that be? Years of failure by the Obama administration and the Democratic Congress haven’t dented the Democrats’ sway over certain minorities:

There has been no change in party identification among African American or Hispanic voters. Large majorities of African American (86%) and Hispanic voters (64%) continue to identify as Democrats or lean Democratic.

To some extent, these groups’ preference for Democrats is understandable. The Democrats’ naked appeals to self-interest are directed largely at lower-income Americans. Yet many lower-income whites, seeing that their prospects have dimmed on account of the Democrats’ lousy economy, are shifting to the GOP. Why wouldn’t this also be the case with regard to ethnic minorities?

I can see two possible explanations. The first is that poorer whites see their fortunes as tied to the economy, while poorer African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to see their fortunes as tied to government support. Thus, hard economic times may only cement their loyalty to those who promise more government benefits.

This theory may be partially correct, but it can’t account for the whole phenomenon, since large majorities of African-Americans and Hispanics are not poor, but are middle-income or better. Likewise, the fact that African-Americans (but not, to my knowledge, Hispanics) are more likely than whites to be public employees can be, at most, a partial explanation.

The second possibility is that Republicans haven’t done a good enough job of competing for the votes of these minorities. This is, of course, a discussion of long standing in Republican circles. For as long as I can remember, Republicans have said that if only we could make inroads into the major minority communities, we would be unbeatable. Yet it never seems to happen.

For politicians running campaigns, decisions generally come down to where they can get the most bang for the buck. Many Republicans have concluded that spending money on advertising to minorities isn’t cost-effective, since historically it hasn’t succeeded in swinging many votes. So Hispanic and, especially, African-American votes are often more or less conceded.

We see this dilemma here in Minnesota. Pretty much every part of the state leans red, with the exception of the two large cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, plus Duluth and parts of northern Minnesota with a strong tradition of organized labor. Yet it is difficult for Republican candidates to win statewide races. In recent years, only exceptionally talented Republicans who easily outclassed their Democratic opponents, like Tim Pawlenty and Norm Coleman, have been able to achieve the feat; and even then, only by the narrowest of margins. Why? Because Democrats carry the cities by 85-15 or 90-10 margins. 60-40 Republican advantages through the rest of the state are often not enough to carry the day.

So our new Republican Party chairman has made it his mission to contest the cities more vigorously–not only during campaign season, but year-round. Building Republican organizations and a continuing Republican presence will take time, but the potential payoff is huge. Republicans don’t need to actually win the cities; if they could get 30 or 40 percent of the vote, it would swing many state-wide races. So we will see, in elections to come, how well this strategy can be carried out.

Minnesota is a microcosm of the nation. The GOP doesn’t have to win majorities of African-American and Hispanic voters, although that would be great. Just becoming remotely competitive would have a big impact on races across the country. And the opportunity certainly should exist; there is way too much diversity among African-Americans and Hispanics for one party to expect a stranglehold on votes.

Unfortunately, these observations are nothing new. Republicans have been saying the same thing for years. Building a bigger presence in minority communities will require long and, often, apparently-fruitless efforts. Whether the GOP is up to the task remains to be seen.

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