ANALYSIS / UNITED STATES : THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE
The role of race in politics takes centrestage
With nomination contests in lily-white Iowa and New Hampshire settled, minority voting power now moves into the spotlight
By ALLEN G BREED
Raleigh, North Carolina _ Historical realities suggest that blacks and Hispanics won't play much of a role in determining the Republican Party presidential nominee. But this year's Democratic primary and caucus schedule was designed specifically to give increased influence to minorities, particularly Latinos. Voters in both groups are energised: Blacks by the early successes of Illinois Senator Barack Obama, who is bidding to be the first black president; Latinos by the intense, sometimes xenophobic debate over immigration. But it is far from clear how those influences will play off each other.
Nevada's caucuses on Jan 19 will give an early showcase of Hispanic voting. However, observers say the true impact of Latino influence might not be felt until the general election, notably in Western states like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada _ places where George Walker Bush's margin of victory in 2004 was razor-thin.
When South Carolina Democrats hold their primary on Jan 26 _ the state Republican contest is Jan 19 _ the choices of substantial numbers of black voters will be tallied for the first time in this election.
Sen Obama's stunning victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Iowa caucuses and strong second in New Hampshire's primary showed he could win white votes. But some say the South Carolina contest offers a new test of his viability: can he energise black voters in places where their numbers could help him win in November?
Race has played a key role in American politics for as long as there have been Democrats and Republicans. Fred Garrett, a black South Carolinian, recalls how before the Great Depression in the 1930s his parents voted Republican, the party of President Abraham Lincoln, who led the US through the Civil War that ended slavery in the southern states. But when President Franklin D Roosevelt offered a New Deal, they took it and shifted their loyalties to the Democrats. Mr Garrett says the Republican Party left him and his black brethren ''by the wayside'' long ago, and he doesn't see any evidence that that will change anytime soon.
''I never have voted Republican nationally,'' says Mr Garrett, 83, whose first ballot was for Roosevelt as a Navy enlisted man toward the end of World War Two. ''I started to vote for Eisenhower one time, but I didn't.''
In 1956, Republican Dwight D Eisenhower was able to garner 39% of the black vote, notes Donald Bositis, a senior research associate for the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies, a black think-tank in Washington, DC. But with the rise of newly converted Republicans like South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and their efforts to thwart civil rights legislation, the Republicans could manage only 6% of the black vote in 1964. ''And that's when the change was over,'' says Mr Bositis.
The historical association between the Democrats and the working class, coupled with the election of John F Kennedy as the first Roman Catholic president, accounts for the Latino affiliation with that party _ Florida Cubans being the great exception. ''The vast majority of Hispanics were, are and remain working class,'' says Gary M Segura, an associate professor of American politics at the University of Washington. ''And so, not surprisingly, that means that they have economic interests which are historically more coincident with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party.''
According to the Pew Research Centre, Hispanics are twice as likely to identify themselves as Democrat than Republican. For blacks, it's 10 times.
''There is in the United States a racial tone to the political parties,'' says Bernard N Grofman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of California. ''It's something that nobody wants to talk about very much, because in some ways it's really very, very embarrassing.''
Both minority groups lag behind whites in voter registration. The latest census figures indicate that while 71%of voting-eligible whites are registered, the rate drops to 61% among blacks and 54% for Latinos.
The conventional wisdom has been that as the nation's population moves toward a minority majority, its political complexion will become more Democratic. But in studying the South, Mr Grofman _ author of the voting-rights history Quiet Revolution in the South _ found a correlation between the percentage of a state's black voting population and increases in white support for Republican candidates.
Mr Grofman notes there have been small but measurable Latino shifts toward the Republicans as Hispanic homeownership rates, conversions to evangelical Protestantism and generational distance from immigration increase. And since many Latinos identify racially as white, he says we may see a ''mimicking'' of the electoral ''white flight'' from the Democratic Party he identified in the South.
A Hispanic-black divide is already showing in the nomination battle.
If Sen Obama wins the Democratic nomination, Mr Segura and others wonder what effect ''black-brown competition'' will have on the Latino vote this fall. Mr Segura agrees with Mr Grofman that it's dangerous to assume the two groups will complement each other at the ballot box. AP