RACIAL ISSUES CALLED FACTOR IN DEMOCRATIC DEFECTIONS
Eichel, Larry. Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia, Pa] 06 May 1985: A.1.
The pollster found that the party's recent defectors, almost all of whom are white, are leaving party ranks largely because they feel that federal domestic programs - which they associate with the Democrats - have stacked the deck in favor of blacks and against themselves.
"Democratic defectors have very deeply felt racial sentiments that are formative as to their views of government and the Democratic Party," the pollster, Stanley Greenberg, president of the Analysis Group in New Haven, Conn., told the party's state chairmen at a conference last weekend in Chicago.
"This underlying racial feeling infuses everything they think about government and party," he said. "It provides the centrality of explanation to everything that is going on in their lives. What we cannot underestimate is the degree to which these feelings are deeply felt and shape their perceptions. They are strong, they are intense and they are determinant."
In essence, Greenberg found that the defectors, many of whom could be described as blue-collar, are abandoning the Democratic Party not so much out of a philosophical conviction that government has been doing too much, but out of a sense that it has been doing for the wrong people.
"I had forgotten how depressing this is," Michigan Democratic Chairman Richard Wiener, who had heard it before, said midway through Greenberg's speech in Chicago.
The pollster's conclusions are based on a relatively small number of interviews from a single state, Michigan, where racial polarization is pronounced. But he supports his thesis by citing poll results from other states; those results show Democratic defectors being far more likely than other voters to agree with statements such as "the government has done too much for the minorities."
And Greenberg's presentation in Chicago touched a nerve among party officials, who have long been aware of the problem but, understandably, do not enjoy discussing such a sensitive matter in public. Since then, state party chairmen from the North and South have told him he would have obtained the same results had he performed his research on their turf.
All this suggests a real dilemma for the national Democratic Party as it goes about the business of trying to broaden its base without abandoning its traditional constituencies.
Blacks constitute the Democrats' largest, most identifiable and most loyal constituency. And black politicians are seeking expanded influence as a reward for their loyalty in 1984, when nearly every other identifiable voting bloc abandoned the party.
But if blacks get more - indeed, even if they just ask for more in a public way - it seems likely that will drive more whites away from the party, or, at the least, prevent defectors from returning. Indeed, party leaders, such as national chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., have talked frequently, though rather gingerly, of the need to reduce the influence of such groups.
Greenberg's findings were based primarily on a series of eight so-called focus groups that his firm assembled in Michigan this spring on behalf of several organizations, including the state Democratic Party and the Michigan Education Association.
Each focus group consisted of 10 wayward Democrats. They were put in a room for two hours and were asked a series of open-ended questions designed to get them talking about what they disliked about the party.
The conversations touched on many topics, including the themes that many analysts have deemed central to recent Republican successes at the polls and the corresponding Democratic failures.
The defectors said they associated the national Democratic Party with high inflation, high taxes and economic mismanagement. They said the party had nothing to say to "Joe Average." And they talked a lot about President Jimmy Carter's handling of the hostage crisis in Iran, which to them symbolized the party's passivity in international affairs and its impotence in protecting the national interest.
But in each of the eight groups, the conversation turned quickly to racial topics.
"It would start with one person raising the subject, almost apologetically," Greenberg said in an interview. "Then it just opened up. People would start telling stories of how opportunities in their lives had been blocked by special privileges given to blacks - promotions they didn't get, small business loans they didn't qualify for. And once they started, you could hardly stop them. If they had their way, they would spend the whole two hours talking about nothing else.
" . . . I'm not sure whether it's racism or not. People didn't make a lot of disparaging comments about blacks. It's that they perceive that their opportunities are blocked by policies meant to benefit blacks."
Other public opinion analysts and politicians, while generally accepting the thrust of Greenberg's conclusions, argue that the sentiment being expressed by defecting Democrats has more to do with government than with race relations.
"This isn't racism," said William Schneider, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who has written extensively about public opinion and the future of the Democratic Party. "By all measures, Americans have become much more racially tolerant in recent years. There is a sense among some people that government has done too much for people who don't really need help, and a lot of that feeling falls on blacks. There is evidence that the Democratic Party has lost a lot of conservatives, north and south, and for some of them race is the issue."
Said Roger Stone, a prominent Republican consultant: "They're not necessarily racists; they're describing the system as they see it, as providing special services for some and not all. . . . I would point out that candidates who run with overt or even subliminal racist appeal continue to lose, even in Southern primaries. You can't win an election on race anymore."
Nonetheless, Greenberg's findings are notable in that they focus on a powerful topic that was largely ignored in much of the national opinion analysis done during the 1984 election.
Since there was no explicit racial issue in the campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter F. Mondale, pollsters tended not to ask questions concerning racial attitudes. Besides, public opinion polls have had a notoriously difficult time eliciting honest responses on racial questions.
But Republican strategists were aware from the outset that race was a real, albeit unspoken, issue, and that it might work to their advantage. They sensed that the candidacy of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the first black to run a credible presidential campaign, would threaten whites in the South and some parts of the North.
That was one reason why they launched a huge voter-registration campaign in targeted white areas and why they came to believe that Jackson's candidacy bolstered Reagan's prospects for re-election.
And the voter exit polls done by news organizations on Election Day revealed a striking degree of racial polarization in the voting for president, particularly in the South. For instance, Reagan got 64 percent of the white vote, 69 percent of the white male vote, 72 percent of the white Southern vote and 75 percent of the white Southern male vote.
Several academics, in books analyzing the campaign, have suggested that an implicit racial issue had something to do with those results.
"The issue of race perpetually exists below the surface of American politics," wrote Henry A. Plotkin, a scholar formerly associated with Rutgers University, in The Election of 1984. "In a fundamental way, the attack by the Republicans on the welfare state can be seen as an attack on black aspirations as well. For many Americans, the welfare state and blacks are seen as coterminous, so that talk of dramatically cutting social programs is merely a subtle form of racism. This is not to say that the President is a racist."
Conservative Republicans do not consider their critique of the welfare state to be racially motivated, and most of them are careful not to use racial buzzwords. But, according to Greenberg, the Democratic defectors have so deeply internalized their own racial sentiments that they pick up a racial message, regardless of what is being transmitted.
As an example of this internalization, Greenberg offered the following piece of evidence. In 1984, one of Mondale's basic themes was a concern for "restoring a sense of fairness to American life." Members of focus groups said they read that phrase to mean "helping the minorities," and such talk made them less likely, not more likely, to vote Democratic.
A KENNEDY QUOTATION
To probe the depth of that sentiment, Greenberg had his focus group leaders read the defectors a quotation from Robert F. Kennedy. In the quotation, Kennedy argued that society had a special obligation to blacks, based on a history of discrimination.
Some of the defectors replied by saying Kennedy's comments had been appropriate for the mid-1960s, when he made them, but were not appropriate now. Others said they could understand why Kennedy had been assassinated.
Greenberg offered the Democrats some reason for cheer. He noted that most of their defectors were becoming independents rather than Republicans. He said that issues related to women in the workplace held real Democratic potential.
And there is evidence from numerous sources that the electorate is overwhelmingly performance-oriented, meaning that the Democrats could benefit from Republican failure in Washington.
But the pollster has no magic formula to address the Democrats' racial problem.
"They can't be dealt with directly," Greenberg said. "You're not going to be able to destroy racism, and you don't want to destroy the black-white coalition, either. The solution is to re-establish the Democratic Party as having something to say to blue-collar workers and suburbanites. Right now, a lot of those people see no common interest with blacks."
Credit: Larry Eichel, Inquirer Staff Writer
Copyright Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. May 6, 1985