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Don't Write Off State's Black Voters

November 19, 2000|David Friedman | David Friedman, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a Markle senior fellow at the New America Foundation

To a remarkable extent, the Democrat's extraordinary success in California's elections hinged on the overwhelming support of slow-growing urban areas. Despite the state's dramatically changing demographics, when absentee ballots are tallied next month, the election results will have been significantly shaped by a constituency that is often overlooked and marginalized: African American voters.

It's still too early to declare California decisively Democratic. According to exit polls, Anglo and Asian voters comprised about 80% of the voters on Nov. 7. Those living in urbanized coastal communities favored Democrats, while residents in eastern counties strongly preferred Republicans. Much like Oregon and Washington, where razor-thin margins determined the presidential and many key congressional races, the two groups split almost perfectly between the major parties.

At the same time, the state's burgeoning Latino population, which cast about 14% of the state's votes, went 2 to 1 for Vice President Al Gore. Even so, Republicans received more than twice the Latino vote they achieved in the 1996 presidential contest. This striking improvement lends support to the widely held expectation that as Latino immigrants become more established in the United States, more and more of them will vote for Republican candidates. For example, the Latino community in Texas, George W. Bush's home state, is generally older than its California counterpart, and it only narrowly went for Gore.

With the state's Anglo and Asian voters divided among Democrats and Republicans, and the Latino vote subject to considerable volatility, African American voters emerged as the state's most crucial swing constituency. They accounted for just 7% of the total votes cast, but supported Democrats by a 9-1 margin. Even before the absentee-ballot count, which may increase Republican totals, the black vote accounted for as much as half the Democrats' statewide margin of victory.

More significant, maintaining this historical voting pattern may prove key to the Democratic fortunes in the future. In particular, a monolithic black vote provides Democrats with nearly unbeatable insurance against the possibility that more Latinos might gravitate toward the GOP.

Assuming that California Latinos voted in ways roughly comparable with Texas (an unlikely scenario at this time), more than 90% of the state's voters would still be evenly split between the two major political parties. The black vote would then control the result. If African Americans continue to strongly favor Democrats, as they have historically, statewide Democratic and urban candidates would almost certainly win most elections, and by a comfortable margin, even if Latinos should turn markedly Republican.

The electoral power of bloc voting is critical to Democrats because long-term growth trends in California and the rest of the nation seem to be skewed toward GOP-leaning regions. Los Angeles and four Bay Area counties accounted for almost all of Gore's lead over Bush in California. Virtually the entire eastern two-thirds of the state, and every major southern county, including Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego, went for Bush.

California's Republican-leaning eastern and southern counties are growing much faster than the state's urban areas, in part because they are gaining population from Democratic strongholds. In recent years, regulatory constraints and high costs limited urban-employment options to comparatively narrow, service-oriented sectors. Throughout the last decade, the state's middle- and working-class families responded by streaming into California's more affordable, pro-growth regions.

This trend cuts across ethnic lines. In the election, counties that exhibited expanding white, Latino or black populations all tended to vote for Bush. Those losing residents voted for Gore. A county's relative attractiveness to new, generally younger and aspiring residents correlates closely with political preference.

The same geographic fragmentation is occurring nationwide. Post-election statistics show that the 2,424 counties voting for Bush were overwhelmingly suburban and rural. The population in these counties grew by an average of 14% over the last decade. In contrast, the 677 counties Gore carried were heavily urbanized and expanded just 30% as fast.

As in California, the country's politically conservative regions are growing much faster than its more liberal counties. If national politics are as evenly divided as the Nov. 7 elections suggest, this trend may force Democrats to consider several difficult options to assure their political survival.

One is to try and limit the growth of Republican-leaning territories by using the federal bureaucracy to extend urban slow-growth constraints to suburban and rural communities. Efforts to expand environmental regulatory regimes in peripheral areas and the rise of "anti-sprawl" sentiments are in part motivated by this goal.

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