Red, White and Blue... But Mostly White
WASHINGTON, 5 Sep (IPS) -
Don't adjust your television set. There is no problem with your signal; it's just that all the colour was missing from the Republican National Convention, which concluded last night with Sen. John McCain's speech accepting the party nomination.
Despite the soaring minority population of the U.S., those demographic groups' representation dwindled at the quadrennial Republican Presidential nomination fête.
As the cameras panned over the party faithful interrupting McCain's speech with booming chants of 'U.S.A.', few faces of colour could be seen in the crowd.
Of 2,380 delegates to this week's convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, only 36 were black, said a report from the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies. The number was a sharp decline from the 2004 convention, which boasted a record 167 black Republican delegates.
The staggeringly low number made this year's Republican National Convention (RNC) the whitest in the 40 years since the Joint Centre began tracking the information.
It was then, in 1968, that Richard Nixon won in major part due to his 'Southern strategy' -- an effort to woo white Southerners who felt threatened by the civil rights movement being supported by Democrats.
Since then, the party has played to the base it developed, often at the expense of the minority vote.
Political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson contends that the Southern strategy has worked well and yielded four decades of Republican dominance in the executive.
'To keep that, you cannot tilt in any way to minorities. It obliterates the strategy,' Hutchinson told IPS. 'It's an ideological party with a very defined conservative base. To say it's a racist party misses the point. African Americans are not the heart and soul of the party in terms of how they win elections. It's a political calculus.'
'Making too overt of a racial pitch is essentially going to alienate the party's base,' he said.
But Hutchinson, author of the new book, 'The GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats Can Take it Back', noted that there was also a disconnect between African Americans and the Republican platform.
Hutchinson says that the conservative heartland appeal of militarism and reduced government are unattractive to blacks. African Americans have overwhelmingly opposed the war in Iraq and support social programmes which they see as benefiting their communities.
In his speech, McCain reaffirmed his unflinching support for the war and called for the party to get back to its Ronald Reagan-era Republican roots -- low taxes and small government -- that sharply cut social programmes in the 1980s.
'There's always a sense that the billions being spent on the Iraq war could be better spent on domestic social programmes,' said Hutchinson. 'These are the types of programmes that could have a great impact on the lives of African Americans.'
In the mid 1990s and through the administration of Pres. George W. Bush, Republicans were making a strong pitch to minorities and starting to reap the electoral benefits.
But the McCain-led Republican convention showed backsliding in this regard. Dr. David Bositis of the Joint Centre said the reasons were three-fold.
He said that a non-incumbent nominee exerts less power over the convention, and Bush had come from a state with the third largest black population in the country.
'McCain on the other hand -- as Fred Sanford would say, Y-T. Say it fast,' Bositis told IPS, noting that McCain hails from a much whiter state (Arizona), and that he came up through the Navy (the whitest branch of the armed services). 'He just has no connection to African Americans whatsoever.'
The third and perhaps most important reason for McCain's dearth of black support is that his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, is himself part black and tremendously popular with African-Americans.
'You put those three things together and it's not a surprise that there are no black people there,' said Bositis.
African Americans were not the only minority who found themselves wondering what had happened. Latinos -- a rapidly expanding demographic amongst whom Bush made sharp gains in 2000 and 2004 -- also saw their numbers dwindle at the RNC.
'Bush, in his second run at it, got close to half of the Latino vote,' said Brent Wilkes, the executive director of League of Unified Latin-American Citizens (LULAC). 'I really do think it's very disappointing; especially McCain. Perhaps he felt his more important priority was to bring in the base, the white Republican, than worry about the minority voter.'
According to LULAC, five percent of the Republican delegates this year were Hispanic, the lowest since 1996.
Bush made gains with Latino voters with wedge issues like opposition to gay marriage and pressing his faith-based initiative, which religious Latinos were attracted to.
But another wedge issue, a virulent anti-immigration plank used to galvanise the party base, could be the undoing of Republican efforts to court Latinos.
McCain has been viewed as a moderate on the immigration issue in the past. He co-sponsored compromise immigration reform legislation with liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy in 2005 and helped craft a 2007 update, both of which were defeated.
But to placate the base, McCain backed away from his support for legalisation of immigrants already in the U.S. and guest-worker permits for those wanting in.
'Either [McCain] doesn't have control over the convention or he's taken a rightward track to try to appeal to his base,' said Wilkes. 'Typically you appeal to your base to win the primary and then you appeal to the centre for the general [election]. But [McCain] appears to still be tacking right.'
Wilkes contends that if Republicans would cool their rhetoric on immigration, their other wedge issues would still work well with Latino voters.
'It's pretty jarring to watch the whole thing and see all the non-minority people out there,' said Wilkes. 'It's hard not to wonder how long the party can last with that kind of white-only representation. They're not going to be able to cede the minority vote to Democrats and still win elections.'
About 12.5 percent of U.S. citizens are black and nearly 15 percent are Latino. A Census Bureau study said that minorities will be the majority of the U.S. population in 34 years.
By contrast with the RNC, 11 percent of delegates to the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Denver were Latino, according to LULAC. The Joint Centre report, 'Blacks and the 2008 Democratic National Convention', said that 1,079 of the 4,418 Democratic delegates were black.
While black Republican delegates numbers dropped by 131, their Democratic counterparts increased their numbers by 208, according to the Joint Centre.