Minority Report

In May of 2004, Paul Rivera had an idea. His proposal, based on his experience working in three previous presidential contests: Put staff in every market where Hispanic and African American voters were important and spend $1 million to test different base-vote mobilization strategies so that by July, the best one could be implemented and carried out as part of the overall field operation. Rivera, a Puerto-Rican Democratic operative from the Bronx who was the highest-ranking Latino in John Kerry's campaign, took the plan up the ladder.

But Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, let the proposal die on the vine. Her intentions may have been understandable -- she wanted to run a streamlined, centralized field operation, say insiders, not a bunch of different projects -- but the net result of the strategy she oversaw was an election-day shocker for the Kerry campaign. Not only did Kerry win a smaller fraction of the Hispanic vote than any Democratic presidential candidate in recent history; he lost a couple of points with black voters, too. And, unlike Bill Clinton in 1996, Kerry lost white women voters, who have by and large remained loyal to the Democratic Party even as their husbands, boyfriends, and brothers grew into a core Republican constituency over the past 40 years.

“One of the biggest problems with the Democratic Party is we don't know how to speak to the people we claim to represent,” Rivera told me in late May over a plate of mini-burgers and parmesan onion curls at hip downtown D.C. eatery Matchbox. “If we say blacks are for Democrats, Hispanics are for Democrats, women are for Democrats -- the data don't show that any more.”

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That is certainly a bit of an exaggeration. Kerry maintained a 3-point gender gap (even if it was the lowest received by a Democratic presidential contender since the gap was first recorded in 1980). He also won 59 percent of the Latino vote -- a steady diminution from the 73 percent for Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore's 62 percent in 2000 -- as well as 88 percent of black voters. But the campaign clearly had structural issues when it came to representing and reaching out to ethnic and racial minorities, as well as women (who are politically underrepresented, despite being a majority of both citizens and voters). During the general-election campaign, “There was not a single minority in any position with a line of authority in the Kerry-Edwards campaign,” recalls Luis Navarro, who served as Kerry's political director during the primary season before decamping to America Coming Together for the general election.

Those structural problems led to a kind of strategic blindness to the importance of minority-voter contact and outreach. Kerry spent less on paid media in Hispanic markets than Gore did in 2000, despite spending more than twice as much overall. Indeed, Kerry spent less on targeted Hispanic media -- $3 million -- than he did on political strategist and consultant Bob Shrum.

In the Democratic Party, ensuring minority turnout has always been seen as something best solved through the traditional transactional political relationships that have characterized the Democratic Party's approach to minorities for decades. Transactional politics means, essentially, that we'll give you X in return for Y -- the “you” often being a high-ranking figure in a given community who can be counted on to deliver votes. It's a top-down model, and it's the one the Kerry campaign emphasized, turning to prominent minority leaders to help it out, just as Democratic presidential campaigns have done for decades.

But even in the African American community, where the model was developed, times have changed. During the general election, the campaign had the Democratic National Committee (DNC) pay $86,000 to race-baiter Al Sharpton, who at most can move 140,000 voters in midnight-blue New York City, as well as substantial sums to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, an aging civil-rights leader whose currency among younger black voters is open to question (and whose organization, Rainbow/PUSH, was recently fined by the Federal Election Commission for campaign-finance rule violations during the 2000 election). What that campaign got in exchange for this was an electorate that was just as white as in 2000, even as the country became more diverse.

The transactional model's opposite is a ground-up operation that involves more direct outreach and financial support for local get-out-the-vote efforts and ethnic media, and a recognition that in immigrant communities, there may not be a leadership or organizational infrastructure capable of moving and turning out voters, no matter how well they are cultivated. The Republican Party, truth be told, recognizes this more than the Democrats do, which has led some younger Democrats to feel that the party is either out of touch or taking minority votes for granted. “There are Democratic decision-makers who ask, ‘How little can I spend on these voters to get them to shut up?'” Rivera says.

In May, Rivera, along with Navarro and three other high-ranking former Kerry campaign and DNC Hispanic political operatives, sent the Democratic leadership and potential '08 candidates a biting 13-page memo. “Instead of developing strategies and political capacity in communities of color to increase the number of voters and votes, the Democratic Party is steeped in token commercial relationships and unaccountable voter-contact methods,” they wrote. “If the Democratic Party does not improve its performance with Latinos, it is doomed.” The memo, which grew out of a series of meetings of more than 30 elected and appointed Hispanic Democratic leaders, as well as political operatives, in November and March, has been understood within the party as the shot across the bow. Nonetheless, there are still those who ask, says Rivera, “How little can I spend on communities of color?”

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The frustrations voiced by the minority members of the Democratic Party, including women, have signaled a deeper dissatisfaction than the usual post-election blues. From formal interviews and informal conversations, over lunches and dinners and drinks with more than two dozen minority and female Democratic operatives and strategists, a picture emerges of a Washington-based party whose model of integrating minorities into its heart and soul -- not to mention reaching out to minority and female voters -- is finally running up against a brick wall.

Make no mistake: The Democratic Party has been the main -- and for many years, the only -- vehicle for success for minority and female politicians in the 20th century, and has done much to earn their loyalty. More than 80 percent of Hispanic elected officials in the United States are Democrats. Fully a quarter of the Democratic women in the House of Representatives are black, partly because, in fact, all the African Americans in the House are Democrats. Two-thirds of the 66 women in the House of Representatives are Democrats. Similarly, with the exceptions of Senator Mel Martinez of Florida and John Sununu of New Hampshire, all the ethnic and racial minority U.S. senators are Democrats, as are nine of the 14 of that body's tiny percentage of women. Delegates to the 2004 Democratic national convention in Boston were almost 40-percent minority, and the DNC, which meets twice a year, is divided into ethnic and identity-group caucuses during the bulk of those meetings.

And yet, at the same time that the party can appear to be relentlessly focused on minorities, minorities increasingly feel stymied and ignored by the party. This is a paradox. But it is more easily explained than you might expect. There are four different levels to consider with regard to the party's constituent minority groups: candidates, staff, politics (defined as relationships with minority elected officials, interest groups, and institutions), and voter contact and outreach (including targeted media and messaging). Among those last three levels, each overlaps with and has a profound impact on the other two. While the party has excelled at electing minority candidates, it has been less successful at recognizing how internal staffing problems and external cultural and demographic shifts have combined, in recent years, to render the political and voter-outreach models less effective than they could be.

Elected officials, in particular, have fallen down when it comes to finding, hiring, and promoting minority staffers. In a 2004 Congressional Management Foundation study of Capitol Hill staffers, blacks made up only 6.1 percent of the top legislation-shaping jobs in the House, and Hispanics just 3.7 percent. Most of the black staffers work for black Democrats, and their absolute numbers actually ebbed during the '90s, thanks to the Republican takeover of Congress in '94. Many white representatives from heavily minority districts have few minority staffers, and then usually at the most junior levels. In campaign seasons and during off years, women, who actually make up the majority of Capitol Hill staffers, though not yet at the executive level, most often find themselves in roles as spokeswomen, assistants, or fund-raisers.

As one male former Gore staffer put it, fund raising is “a job that requires a lot of time on the phone with people, being really nice to them even when they are jerks.” Women are seen as especially suited to that, he said, as well as “catering to men's needs” in an environment where most of the major donors are men. No surprise, then, that some women have come to resent what they refer to as “the girl ghetto” of fund raising. “The assumption is that we are all expected to deliver some cash, too, as if the cash will up our credibility with the boys,” says one female political operative who has moved on from fund raising to strategy and media. “It's tremendously, tremendously annoying.”

At best, racial and ethnic minorities rise to the level of campaign political directors. That sounds important, but it basically just means that they oversee relationships with interest groups and elected officials. And though three women have managed presidential campaigns, all three were brought in only during moments of crisis after the original, male managers were ousted. Some leading female Democratic political consultants say that, with the exception of Senator Hillary Clinton and her circle, they see more women in higher positions and with greater intraparty authority on the Republican side. “There are plenty of men in our party who are uncomfortable with powerful women,” says one leading female Democratic consultant. Even in progressive Democratic political circles, the normal social relationships of American society frequently wind up being reproduced in miniature, glass ceilings and all.

That means that by the time campaign season rolls around, most female and minority staffers do not have the seniority to play decision-making roles. Picked for middle-management posts, they find themselves caught between wanting to escape being confined to roles defined by their ethnicity or gender, so as to be taken seriously as individuals and political professionals, or playing the part of token minority, focused solely on minority issues, but often without the authority to get their unique insights turned into operational realities.

Further, the transactional political model the Democrats have been using is a relic from a less integrated era that predates the rise of the college-educated black and Hispanic middle class, according to many observers I spoke with. It also predates the diverse wave of new citizens who arrived after the Immigration Act of 1965.

Immigration, it turns out, is a central factor in the changing relationship of the Democrats to minorities. American-born Hispanics voted 65 percent for Kerry in the last election, just as 64 percent had voted for Clinton in '96. But between 1996 and 2004, foreign-born Hispanic support for Democrats plummeted from 82 percent to 52 percent, while the size of the Hispanic electorate nearly doubled because of the sudden influx of newer citizens into the voting booths, according to an analysis by Bendixen and Associates, a Miami-based Democratic polling firm, conducted for NDN (formerly known as the New Democratic Network). The bulk of the new, immigrant Hispanic voters are actually longtime American residents, says firm director Sergio Bendixen, having arrived during the 1970s, become citizens after the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act, and become active political participants during the 1990s. At this point, they tend to be middle-aged and married. They have had children. And they share with other middle-class married voters with children a preference for Republicans -- the party, not coincidentally, that granted them citizenship under the Reagan-era amnesty program. Because most of these immigrants arrived in the '70s or later, they have no memory of the Democratic Party's role in the civil-rights movement and are far more open to appeals from Republicans.

The same immigrant/U.S.–born political divide has opened in other ethnic communities. Within the Indian American community, for example, a progressive American-born faction prefers to be seen as “South Asian,” an ethnic category encompassing Muslim Pakistanis as well as Hindu Indians, while more traditionalist leaders born in India have formed alliances with conservative and Republican Jews in a microcosm of the Indian-Israeli alliance against Islamic fundamentalism familiar from the political milieu of their homeland. Arab Americans, who were solidly Republican in 2000 for reasons of both culture and economic class, have become strongly Democratic since September 11 in response to Bush-era Department of Justice and Homeland Security policies. Overall, voters lumped together as “other” -- not white, not black, not Hispanic -- voted very much like Hispanics in election 2004, with a preference for Democrats far lower than African Americans'.

In short, the political loyalties of immigrant communities are up for grabs, and can swing wildly from one election to the next, even from one state to another. Texas Hispanics backed George W. Bush in 2004 49 percent of the time, but 83 percent of Hispanics in Oregon favored John Kerry. Cuban Americans in Florida have historically voted Republican, but the Cuban population in that state is shrinking relative to the Mexican one. Florida is the one state where Hispanic support for Bush dropped notably from 2000 to 2004, thanks in part to the intensive media strategy for the state developed by the NDN's Hispanic Project, the major program for outreach to Hispanics on the Democratic side during the 2004 cycle, which spent $6 million on media and messaging. The more new voters head to the polls, the less stable their political affiliations can be predicted to be, and the more targeted efforts -- like the one Paul Rivera proposed to the Kerry campaign, and the ones conducted by NDN -- can make the critical difference in determining their voting patterns.

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The other major thing that has changed is the Republican Party. This development is even more recent than the immigrant influx and still not something most Democrats are able to believe is really happening. And yet it is.

Karl Rove and other Republican strategists who came up through Texas political circles with Bush want to build a multiethnic Republican Party. Their experience in Texas, where half of the population will be Hispanic within 25 years, has taught them that gaining Hispanic votes is both necessary and possible. And they believe that if they can peel off even small fractions of the Democrats' constituent minority groups in battleground states, given our present narrowly divided political environment, they can deprive Democrats of the presidency for a generation. If white women and Hispanics start consistently voting majority Republican, too, even if only by small margins, and black voters mark even 20 percent of their ballots for Republicans, the Democratic coalition that has maintained a fractious but productive unity in the face of reaction and the rising conservative movement since the '70s would effectively come to an end. (White men have not voted majority Democratic since 1964.)

Central to this task is Republican media strategist Lionel Sosa, who, along with his wife, Kathy, and other media strategists in San Antonio, Texas, has been teaching Republicans how to win over Hispanics since the 1970s and doing Spanish-language media work for Bush since the 1998 gubernatorial race. Sosa first learned way back in 1978, while working on John Tower's Senate race, that reaching out to Hispanics with a positive, emotional, uplifting message can lead to massive vote shifts into the Republican column. Tower won the race by half a percent -- and it was his 37 percent share of Hispanics that put him over the top. That was a 29-point gain from previous Republican races. Sosa says he learned his strategy from a man Republicans revere as the master of optimistic media strategies: Ronald Reagan.

“Tower introduced me to Ronald Reagan,” during the Senate race, recalls Sosa. “He was governor at the time. I explained to him what I was trying to do. He said, ‘That's going to be real easy.' I said, ‘Why do you say that?' He said that ‘Hispanics are Republicans; they just don't know it.'” Reagan then explained that Hispanic families were taught to value family, faith in God, hard work, and personal responsibility, and to believe that America is the greatest country of all. Those, Reagan told Sosa, are Latino values and Republican values. “I was just astonished that in 30 seconds, he gave me the strategy, and I have followed it ever since,” Sosa says.

Democrats often attribute the GOP's gains among Latinos to such factors as homophobia and anti-abortion sentiment. But in fact, such explosive personal issues are rarely discussed or even mentioned in GOP media for Hispanics (whether outside groups do so is another question). Those subjects, explains Bendixen, are so taboo in traditional Hispanic cultures that when he conducted focus groups to gauge Latino opinions on gay marriage (among other issues), more than 70 percent of one group said afterward that this was the first time they had ever discussed homosexuality with another person in their lives.

Thus, in 2004, Bush ads aimed at Latino voters showed pictures of college students graduating, prosperous-looking families with four kids laughing, and well-to-do-looking Hispanics at the office, while a very sentimental, specially composed Spanish song played in the background. Ads proclaimed that America is our country and Bush is our president. The message: Nos conocemos. We know each other. All told, Bush spent about $5.5 million on uplifting, aspiration-based emotional appeals in Spanish-language media in 2004 -- a small cost, due to the inexpensive nature of the media markets in Hispanic battleground states -- with a tremendous bang for the buck. The GOP increased its Hispanic margin by 10 percent in the states where 79 percent of Hispanic voters reside and where Democrats declined to target them, and overwhelmed ethnic media markets in battleground states. In New Mexico, which Gore won in 2000 and where Bush won in 2004 by less than 6,000 votes, Hispanics provided his margin of victory; Democratic targeting in the last few weeks before the election simply came too late.

In 2005, the Republican National Committee (RNC) made an ambitious decision to make a play for the Democrats' most loyal constituency, African Americans. RNC Chair Ken Mehlman has said he considers this part of a long-term effort to win over a larger minority of black voters, and neither he nor Democrats expect the GOP to make rapid inroads.

Mehlman launched the initiative during Black History Month (February) with a visit to a community college in Prince George's County, Maryland, just outside the District of Columbia. To Democratic eyes, this may have seemed simply a question of proximity, but the choice of PG County was actually quite strategic: It is the wealthiest majority black county in America. If the GOP is capable of developing a message that appeals to blacks, the prosperous voters of PG County are an ideal test community to show them the way. Already, in 2004, 21 percent of blacks from households earning more than $100,000 a year voted Republican. It helps, too, that Republican Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, one of just a handful of African Americans nationwide who've won office in statewide elections, hails from Prince George's. Karl Rove and Republican leaders have urged him to run for the state's Senate seat in 2006. And former PG County Executive Wayne K. Curry, an African American Democrat, is being courted by Republicans to replace Steele at the state level.

At the candidate level, Republicans have discovered that they can make up for their gaping deficit in minority elected officials, and their historic lack of support for the many minority Republican candidates who populate primary contests around the country, through a different and quicker process: appointments. Since 2000, President Bush has appointed more minorities to positions that require Senate confirmation -- and hence public discussion and high visibility -- than has any previous Republican president. Though he's appointed fewer minorities within the federal bureaucracy than Bill Clinton, the 2,800 presidential appointments he must make each term have nonetheless provided him with extremely favorable terrain for building loyalty and gratitude among minority groups, and an opportunity to groom a new generation of minority civil servants for public office. Indeed, the RNC's newly formed Hispanic and African American advisory councils are already filled with individuals who are also -- fancy that -- likely 2006 candidates for a variety of offices.

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So what are the Democrats doing about all this?

In response to the dissatisfaction of minority communities, the DNC, under Chairman Howard Dean, is revamping the Clinton-era minority political desk system and plans to make voter targeting, including of minorities, a much more central aspect of the committee's ongoing get-out-the-vote and field operations. Dean has won praise for his hiring practices, appointing the first black director of polling in party history, Cornell Belcher of Brilliant Corners Research and Strategy; a female political director, Pam Womack; and a mixed-race communications director, Karen Finney, who had previously worked for Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards. Finney speaks of a “paradigm shift” and vows that from here on out, “We will not take a single vote or a single voter for granted. That is a mistake we will not make again.”

As in so much, though, the party is starting from so far behind, and from a position of such persistent disorganization, it's already been hard-pressed to compete on these issues with a Republican media campaign that's seen Mehlman move from being protested by the Democratic-leaning black activist group the Hip Hop Caucus during a visit to Howard University in March to winning kudos from the group's founder, Russell Simmons, in June. “When it comes to reaching out to poor people and minorities, I think there's no enthusiasm on Howard's part, while Ken shows a real willingness to listen,” Simmons told the New York Daily News. Other minority leaders, including one high-ranking former Clinton administration official, admit that they are pleased that their votes are now being courted from both sides, as it gives them more power as minority activists and will give the issues they care about greater salience.

As Democrats, however, they are worried. For example, the DNC is still working to build infrastructure to reach out to Hispanics. Nelson Reyneri, the DNC director of Hispanic outreach, says that when he arrived in 2003, the party did not even have a database of its own Hispanic elected officials and leading activists to rely on. At the first-ever DNC Hispanic Leadership Summit, in September 2003, “the overwhelming sentiment … was one of frustration with the Democratic leadership, including the DNC,” he wrote in a March 2005 post-election report to the DNC leadership. Much progress was made in building the political infrastructure within the DNC for more effectively working with Hispanic elected officials in 2004, but Reyneri concluded that “to be truly effective, any Hispanic outreach effort would have to actively engage the state parties.” In 2004, “The leadership of most state parties were either not interested or committed to a serious and strategic Hispanic outreach effort.”

Alarmed Democrats are aware of the threat to the health of their coalition. The need for greater targeting at the state level is one reason Dean has spent so much time and focus on placing DNC field operatives in the states. Kerry, perhaps with an eye to 2008, has had Latino and African American leaders over to his house for two large dinners in recent months, where he has offered mea culpas for his 2004 neglect and errors.

When it comes to female voters, the situation is just as muddled. Some pollsters, such as Celinda Lake, have argued that Kerry lost white women because of the defection of white working-class women concerned about security issues. Others, such as Anna Greenberg, point out that the major defection of white working-class women has been ongoing since the late '90s and that it will take a multipronged approach that focuses on cultural worries -- as well as security, health care, and Social Security -- to win back different demographic subsets of the white female vote. “We have huge opportunities, but we won't do it if we pretend like nothing happened in this election with women voters,” says Greenberg. “I don't think it's rocket science.”

That phrase -- and the assertion of possibility contained within it -- was something I heard repeatedly from different political professionals. What they meant is that, if the right people are listened to, and if minority-voter contact and messaging are made priorities in the next election cycle and on an ongoing basis, there's no reason the party can't regain its lost ground and fend off the Republican plans to chip away at the Democratic base. “It's not rocket science,” Rivera told me. “It's political science.” And that, at least, is one cause for hope.

Garance Franke-Ruta is a Prospect senior editor.