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1989 Election : The Flip Side Of 1988: Abortion & Negative Campaigning

November 12, 1989|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

NEW YORK — The 1989 election looks like the 1988 election upside down. Everything we learned about abortion, race and negative campaigning last year was reversed last week.

In 1988, race and abortion seemed to hurt the Democrats. Republicans used Willie Horton ads to make a subtle appeal to white racism. The only voters who seemed to care about abortion were on the right-to-life side.

In last week's elections, abortion was a Democratic issue. Pro-choice Democrats won every major race. Blacks won four important contests in white-majority constituencies. New York, Seattle and New Haven got their first black mayors, and--pending a recount--Virginia, of all places, elected the nation's first black governor.

Everyone in politics learned the same lesson from 1988: Negative campaigning works. Nobody likes to run a negative campaign, but it got George Bush elected President. And the credo of political consultants is, "Whatever it takes." This year, however, negative campaigns seemed to backfire. Candidates who ran the nastiest ads found themselves on the defensive. And lost.

This year, the pro-choice movement seems on a roll. If the recount sustains the result, abortion rights activists can claim credit for doing something never done before--electing a black governor. And in Virginia, a Southern state so conservative it never voted for Jimmy Carter.

According to an exit poll taken by CBS News and the New York Times, abortion was the issue that mattered most to Virginia voters--more than crime or education or taxes. Abortion also helped the Democrats in New Jersey and New York City. In both states, almost half the voters agreed with the following statement offered in a WNBC-TV exit poll: "I could never vote for a candidate who disagrees with my position on abortion." They voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Bush was so disconcerted by the abortion issue that he said in his Election Day press conference: "We have room in our party for people that feel . . . pro-life or pro-choice. The Democratic Party is the same way."

Not quite. The GOP platform has called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortions since 1980, while the Democrats have supported abortion rights for the past 10 years. The real message of the 1989 campaign was that it is dangerous to waver on abortion--as Bush is now doing.

The GOP candidates for governor in Virginia and New Jersey got scared when they saw the pro-choice movement materialize into a voting force. Each tried to back off their hard-line anti-abortion positions. All they ended up doing was making both sides mad. A spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee said "there was no pro-life candidate" in the New Jersey race. On an issue like abortion, waffling doesn't work.

Last week's election produced two big news stories. One was that black candidates got elected mayor of New York and governor of Virginia, by electorates only 25% and 15% black, respectively. The other was that the black candidates almost did not get elected mayor of New York and governor of Virginia. In New York, David N. Dinkins got 50.4% of the vote. In Virginia, L. Douglas Wilder got 50.15%, a margin of 5,533 votes out of almost 1.8 million.

In their campaigns, both black candidates made an appeal for racial harmony. Describing himself as a "healer," Dinkins promised to "reach out to all the family of New York." A vote for Dinkins was seen by many as a vote to repudiate 12 years of racial divisiveness and insensitivity under incumbent Mayor Edward I. Koch.

In Virginia, Wilder's campaign theme was, "Keep Virginia moving forward; don't let (Republican candidate) Marshall Coleman take us back." It was a subtle appeal for Virginians to make history by repudiating their racist past.

Both black candidates asked white voters to make a statement against racism. And many did. Dinkins got about 30% of the white vote. Until this year, no black in a mayoral race between a white and a black had done better among whites, except for Tom Bradley in Los Angeles. Wilder did even better in Virginia, with 41% of the white vote. Times have changed--today a black candidate does better among whites in the South than in New York City.

Dinkins and Wilder were both non-threatening Establishment candidates. They followed the traditional ethnic route to political success. Like the Irish, Italians and Jews before them, they worked their way up through the system with political success as the final reward. They made it in the white world.

In other words, both Dinkins and Wilder are political insiders. Both were certainly loyal to the civil-rights cause. In the Virginia Legislature, Wilder campaigned for fair housing laws and a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Dinkins served as Jesse Jackson's New York campaign chairman in 1988. Both worked to change the system--but from the inside.

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