An Insider's View of the Election

Our author visits the political pros in four battleground states and is reminded that the swing vote in the November election is not conservative or liberal, northern or southern, young or old, black or Hispanic--it's the white middle class.
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There are two theories about the 1988 presidential election. One is that the Democrats can't lose unless they do everything wrong. The other is that they can't win even if they do everything right.

According to the first theory, the Democrats hold all the trump cards--the Iran-contra scandal, the stock-market crash, public disenchantment with Ronald Reagan, and George Bush's high negatives in the polls. All they have to do is play their cards right. The other theory says that the Democratic Party is in such a parlous condition that none of these advantages really matters. "The unpleasant truth is this," the political consultant Patrick H. Caddell wrote in a memorandum to major party contributors last year. "The party has never been weaker in our lifetime and the array of obstacles and trends never more alarming." Horace W. Busby, formerly a confidant of Lyndon B. Johnson's and now a Washington consultant, offered this prophecy one month before the 1980 election: "The hard-to-accept truth is that Democratic candidacies for the White House may no longer be viable. The Republican lock is about to close; it will be hard for anyone to open over the four elections between now and the year 2000." I interviewed Busby late last year and asked him if he saw any prospect that the Democrats could break the Republican lock in 1988. "No, I don't," he replied. Who did he think would be the strongest Democratic standard bearer in 1988? "Michael Dukakis," he said. "Why Dukakis?" I asked. "Because," Busby replied, "he is the Democrat most likely to carry his own state."

It's fairly easy to find evidence for the theory that the Democrats are headed for a victory. Just look at the polls--and not only the "horserace" polls, showing Dukakis with a healthy lead over Bush. Gallup polls taken earlier this year showed the Democrats regaining a lead, of 42 to 29 percent, over the Republicans in party affiliation. In 1985, shortly after President Reagan's re-election victory, the parties were nearly equal in strength. In October of 1987 a Time magazine poll asked people which party would handle various issues better. The Democrats were rated five points ahead on "keeping the country out of war." Two years earlier the Republicans had been five points ahead. On "keeping inflation under control" the Republican advantage had shrunk from 10 points in 1985 to an insignificant one point by 1987. The Republicans were still ahead on "keeping the country strong and prosperous," but the margin was six points in 1987, down from 18 points in 1985. And this was before the stock market crash.

The revolt against government is over. According to a CBS-New York Times poll taken in May, the American public is now evenly divided when asked whether it prefers a "bigger government providing more services" or a "smaller government providing fewer services." The Times reported, "Bigger government has not been this popular since November 1976, which is also the last time the Democrats won a presidential election." Moreover, tax resentment, a key source of public support for the Reagan revolution, has clearly diminished. From 1978 to 1986, according to polls taken by the Roper Organization, the percentage of Americans who felt that their federal income taxes were "excessively high" dropped from 41 to 26 percent.

Americans are in a mood for change. When people are asked in various ways whether they want the next President to continue Ronald Reagan's policies or change direction and follow different policies, a majority consistently opts for change.

If the evidence for Democratic optimism comes from the polls, the electoral college provides ample support for Democratic pessimism. "The electoral college, which Democrats prefer to ignore, is a Republican institution," Horace Busby wrote in 1980. "If a Democratic incumbency cannot hold it, it must be considered unlikely that a Democratic challenge can retake it." In Busby's view, the Republicans dominated the electoral college from the Civil War through the 1920s (the "Lincoln lock"); the Democrats held the advantage briefly, during the 1930s and 1940s (the "Roosevelt lock"); and the Republicans have dominated presidential politics since the 1950s (the "Eisenhower lock"). In the nine presidential elections from 1952 to 1984, thirty-nine states have gone Republican at least five times. Those states account for 441 electoral votes, or 171 more than the majority needed to win the presidency. "So long as the GOP holds that lock, Democrats are not competitive at the presidential level."

That does not mean the Democrats are not competitive at all. The Republican presidential lock coexists with a Democratic lock on the House of Representatives, which has had a Democratic majority for all but four years since 1930, and on state and local offices, where Democrats continue to predominate. Busby observed that "nearly anything you look at in American politics turns out to be sixty-forty." The Democratic percentages in Congress hover around 60 percent, while the Democrats can count on winning only about 40 percent of the presidential vote (43 percent in 1968, 38 percent in 1972, 41 percent in 1980 and 1984). "If you have a credible opposition, it's likely to get about forty percent of the vote," Busby explained. Americans, it seems, are governed by one-party rule--but by different parties at different levels.

In his memorandum, which was widely circulated, Caddell described the electoral college as "nothing less than an electoral Matterhorn" for Democrats. Caddell examined statistics from the past five presidential elections and came up with a startling conclusion: the national Democratic Party has no base. Only the District of Columbia, with three electoral votes, has voted for the Democratic ticket every time. Twenty-three states with a total of 202 electoral votes have voted Republican every time. One of those states, California, is the biggest prize of all, with forty-seven electoral votes. Add to this Republican base those states that have supported the party four out of the past five times, and the Republicans end up with thirty-six states and 354 electoral votes. That is well over the 270 votes needed for an electoral-college majority. Only one state, Minnesota, has voted Democratic four out of the past five times. A Minnesotan was on the Democratic ticket each of those times.

What can the Democrats do? Caddell's rule of thumb is that in order to be electorally viable, the Democratic ticket has to be able to "compete to win" California, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, and North Carolina. In the past five presidential elections the Democrats have won exactly three victories (North Carolina in 1976, Texas in 1968 and 1976) out of the twenty-five contests in these states.

The Democrats are the victims of demographic change and ideological change. The movement of population to the Sun Belt has shifted the balance in the electoral college decisively. In 1932 the Northeast and the Midwest accounted for 54 percent of the nation's electoral votes. By 1960 the Sun Belt states of the South and West had pulled even in population with the Northeast and the Midwest. Now the balance has reversed: this year the South and West hold 54 percent of the electoral votes.

Moreover, as the Sun Belt has gotten more populous, it has become more Republican. In the two Eisenhower elections, 1952 and 1956, about twice as many votes were cast in the Northeast and Midwest as in the South and West. In those days the South and West voted more Democratic than the Northeast and Midwest. By the time of the two Reagan elections, 1980 and 1984, the Sun Belt and the Snow Belt were casting about the same number of votes, but the party advantages had reversed. Republicans were now doing better in the Sun Belt than in the Snow Belt.

Population shifts within states have been as important as population shifts among states. In the northern industrial states population has shifted decisively from the cities to the suburbs--which is to say, from core Democratic to core Republican areas. Back in 1940 the urban population in these states outweighed the suburban population by more than two to one. By the 1970 census the suburbs were larger than the cities they surrounded. And as the suburbs got larger, they became more Republican. From 1960 to 1984 the Democratic share of the big-city vote remained roughly constant, at about two thirds. But the Democratic share of the suburban vote fell steadily, from just under half in 1960 to about one third in 1984. In other words, the Republican Party's base has been shifting with the population, to the fastest-growing states and the fastest-growing areas within each state.

Ideologically the Democrats have become more and more isolated on the left. Two broad streams of voters have been leaving the party since the 1950s--white southerners and white "ethnics" outside the South. Walter Mondale carried only 28 percent of the white southern vote in 1984. Mondale's Catholic vote, at 44 percent, was the worst showing by any Democratic presidential candidate since 1924. Beginning in the 1960s the Democrats made it clear that the party did not welcome the support of racists, hawks, and religious conservatives--voters who had felt at home in the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. These losses would not have been devastating if the Democrats had managed to hold on to the economic issue. But Carter's failure and Reagan's perceived success in managing the economy had the effect of seriously damaging the party's economic credibility. Thus social and foreign-policy liberalism has driven the conservatives out, and the economic issue no longer brings them back in--at least it doesn't in the absence of a major recession.

In order to win the presidency this year, the Democrats have to gain nine percentage points over the party's 1984 showing. An increase of that magnitude for a party out of power is relatively rare in American politics. It has happened four times in this century. The largest gain came in 1932, when the Democrats' share of the popular vote went up 17 points and Franklin D. Roosevelt was swept into office. The big issue was the Great Depression. The next largest gain was in 1920, when the Republican vote went up 14 percent. The big issue was the return to normalcy after the Great War. The Democrats picked up 13 points in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was elected. The big issues were Watergate and the economy. The Republican vote went up 10 points when Eisenhower led the ticket in 1952. The big issue was the Korean War, with a dose of communism and corruption thrown in. If George Wallace had not been on the ballot, the Republican vote probably would have gone up by at least 10 points in 1968 as well (the Democratic vote fell by 18 points). The big issue in 1968 was Vietnam, along with racial violence and student protest.

There's a message here. If the Democrats want to score a gain of nine percent or more in 1988, they need a big issue. The Iran-contra scandal? It certainly looked like one when the scandal broke, at the end of 1986. Now it is not so clear. Congress and the press went into their Watergate mode and spent the better part of last year looking for the "smoking gun" that would tie President Reagan to the contra fund diversion. Not only did the smoking gun never turn up but the whole investigation diverted public attention from the one issue that really hurt the President--the fact that he sold arms to Iran. With Bush at the top of the Republican ticket, the issue may hurt. But not nearly so much as Watergate or Vietnam or Korea or the Great Depression did.

The stock-market crash is another candidate for the big issue of 1988. Here, too, the damage seems to be insufficient for the Democrats' purposes. The public did not show any sense of a crisis. According to the polls, most Americans felt unaffected by the October 19 crash. A survey taken by the Confidence Board, a business-research organization, found that consumer confidence dropped by only five percent after the stock market plunge. In contrast, consumer confidence dropped 33 percent after the 1973 surge in oil prices. The principal effect of Black Monday was to create more pessimism about the economy. But the economic issue is still a brush fire in the hills to most Americans. They know there is danger out there, and the stock-market crash suggested that it is getting closer. But it is not here yet.

The stock-market crash was not a crisis. It was a warning. And by forcing both candidates to talk about the deficit, it does not play to the Democratic Party's strength. The instability of the world's financial markets does lend further support to the view that the United States must change its economic policies. And the desire for change always helps the party out of power. But to gain nine percentage points in 1988 the Democrats will need more than a national case of the jitters.

According to Horace Busby, "When electoral-college locks have been broken, as in 1932 and 1952, the winning party has benefited from a large infusion of new voters. FDR's 1932 popular vote was 51 percent larger than Al Smith's in 1928; Eisenhower's 1952 popular vote exceeded Dewey's 1948 level by 54 percent." Caddell made a similar point. "Both Eisenhower and Carter won by bringing over millions of 'new' voters--weak Democrats, Independents and war veterans for Eisenhower, and white Southern Protestants for Carter." What new voters are available in 1988? The Baby Boomers are one possibility. In Busby's view, both the Republican lock on the electoral college and the Democratic lock on lower offices "were set and maintained by those voters born before the 1940s." Younger voters could break those locks. In fact, Busby expects that to happen--but not in 1988. There is no issue like the Vietnam War around which Baby Boomers can rally this year.

The generation that is flexing its political muscle most conspicuously in 1988 is not the Baby Boom but the Senior Boom. Elderly voters have a real generational issue--the protection of federal entitlement programs that are under threat because of the deficit. Seniors are mobilizing to meet that threat. They might break the Republican lock if the Republicans are foolish enough to propose serious entitlement cuts.

Every election offers voters two kinds of choices: an ideological choice ("Which candidate is closer to my beliefs and values?") and a referendum on the incumbent ("Am I satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going?"). The Democrats cannot win an ideological election anymore. That is the message conveyed by the electoral-college data. In moving south and west and out to the suburbs, too many voters have shifted from the pro-government to the anti-government side. They identify as taxpayers, not as beneficiaries of public spending, and they are more likely to see government as interfering with them than as protecting them. They can get what they need from government by keeping the Democrats in charge at the legislative level. The Republicans seem to have the edge on executive qualities--leading and directing--while the Democrats are better suited to the legislative tasks of protecting and providing.

The Democrats can, however, win a referendum. That is the message conveyed by the polls. American voters want change, as long as it is not too much change. They want to preserve the two leading accomplishments of the Reagan presidency--lower inflation and a greater sense of military security. But they want the new Administration to correct Reagan's mistakes--the deficit, the Iran-contra approach to foreign policy, the sleaze factor--and to pay more attention to social and economic justice. What the Democrats have to do in 1988 is turn themselves into a usable opposition. If they present themselves as a liberal party, the electoral college will do to them exactly what it did in 1968, 1972, and 1984. But they can't become a conservative party either. Liberals are right when they say that faced with a choice between two Republican parties, the voters will choose the real thing every time. The answer is for the Democrats to define themselves as the party of change. Instead of posing an ideological choice, in which people are asked to vote their beliefs and values, the Democrats must do exactly what Ronald Reagan did in 1980- forget ideology and turn the election into a referendum, a choice between continuity and change. Once the Democrats win, they will have ample opportunity to convince the voters that their principles are correct. All they have to do is show that they work.

That, at least, is the hypothesis. In order to see whether it made sense, I spent two months recently traveling to key battleground states--Illinois, New York, Texas, and California. Together they will cast 136 electoral votes, or more than half of the 270 needed for an electoral-college majority. The four states include seven of the nation's ten largest cities. They exemplify the political cultures of their respective regions--the Midwest (Illinois), the East (New York), the South (Texas), and the West (California). If American politics turns on a Sun Belt-Snow Belt axis, then New York and Illinois will be allied against Texas and California. Then again, the economic trends of the 1980s seem to have split the booming coast states, like New York and California, from the troubled heartland areas, like Illinois and Texas. Together the four states capture all variations of the national condition in 1988.

Moreover, the four states I visited all have strong and intensely local political cultures. Chicago and New York City are famous for swallowing up national candidates and treating national issues as secondary to local concerns. It happened to Gary Hart in the 1984 Illinois primary, and it happened to Albert Gore, Jr., this year in New York. As for Texas and California, they are famous for seeing themselves as virtually different countries (in fact, Texas and California were different countries for brief periods in the nineteenth century). There is a reason why local factors may be unusually important in the 1988 presidential election: the election is expected to be a close one.

During 1984, according to Public Opinion magazine, Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale were matched against each other in 101 "trial heats" published by various polling organizations. A hundred of these polls showed Reagan ahead; Mondale was ahead just once, by two points, in a Newsweek poll taken on the day after the Democratic National Convention. In March and April of this year seven polling organizations published trial heats between George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Dukakis led in two polls, Bush led in two, and the other three were too close to call. In May the CBS-New York Times poll showed Dukakis beating Bush by 10 points, while the Gallup poll, which showed Bush ahead in April, gave Dukakis a 16-point lead. "It will come down to gut feelings a few days before the election of whether we stick with good old George or make a change to a guy who seems competent and may do a little good," Edward J. Rollins, Reagan's 1984 campaign manager, told The Washington Post in April. In landslide elections, like those of 1964, 1972, and 1984, local factors are virtually irrelevant. The winning ticket does well everywhere. In close elections, like those of 1960 and 1976, everything matters--a candidate's appearance in a debate, a foreign-policy gaffe like Gerald Ford's liberation of Poland, what kind of local support each campaign has going for it in the key battleground states. With this in mind, I interviewed officeholders, party officials, consultants and commentators to see how they assessed the outlook for November 8, 1988, in their state.

New York and Texas are supposed to be "core" Democratic states. Since 1952 their voting profiles in presidential races have been exactly the same. Both states voted Republican in 1952 and 1956; Democratic in 1960, 1964, and 1968; Republican in 1972; Democratic in 1976; and Republican in 1980 and 1984. Illinois and California have been less kind to the Democrats. Except for the 1964 Johnson landslide, both states have sustained almost perfect Republican loyalty since 1952. The one exception was the 1960 election in Illinois, when John F. Kennedy carried the state by fewer than 9,000 votes out of 4.75 million cast. That outcome, more than a few people suspect, had more to do with the way the votes were counted than the way the votes were cast.

ILLINOIS

Over the past twenty-five years American politics has become more and more ideological. The moderate eastern establishment that used to run the Republican Party has been overthrown by a vigorous and populist conservative movement. The regulars who used to run the Democratic Party--politicians like the late Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley--were forced to accommodate to the highly principled, reform-minded liberalism that emerged with the New Politics movement in 1968 and 1972. In national politics, conflicts of interests (business versus labor) have largely given way to conflicts of values (liberal versus conservative).

The politics of values is probably more alien to Illinois than to any other state. Illinois politics has never been primarily about ideas and values. It is about interests--jobs, money, and power. Illinois politicos are not comfortable with the drift of American politics away from meat-and potatoes issues and toward airier concerns, which they associate with East Coast and West Coast activists.

Tom Roeser, a Republican activist and the president of the City Club of Chicago, offered Representative Dan Rostenkowski as "a pretty good model" of the kind of regular Democrat who does well in Illinois. "He's a blue-collar guy. He's strong for labor. He's not running around to 'I am guilty' meetings of the black community. He talks about hiking taxes, but he also talks about fiscal responsibility. He certainly doesn't have an exotic foreign policy. He understands business. He could be a model for a lot of people who want to get the Illinois vote."

I spoke to James M. Wall, a former liberal activist and an ordained Methodist minister who now edits The Christian Century. Wall chaired the McGovern delegation at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, in Miami. He served as Illinois chairman of the Carter campaign in 1976 and 1980 and managed Paul Simon's 1984 Democratic primary campaign for the U.S. Senate. According to Wall, Carter lost Illinois twice because "he was still seen as a liberal Democrat." The problem with being a liberal Democrat, Wall explained, is that it entails a moralistic approach to politics that does not go down very well in Illinois.

Wall told me, "I interviewed George McGovern after the 1972 election, and he said to me, 'We made a terrible mistake casting this campaign in moral terms. The fact that we called the Vietnam War immoral said to anybody who supports the war or fights in the war that they were immoral.' Ever since then we've been in trouble."

Wall said that his views changed on the floor of the 1972 convention. "I had to confront a badly wounded bunch of Chicago regulars," he told me. "I realized that McGovern now had to win the election and would need the help of Richard J. Daley. I was confronted by a young woman who came on the floor of the convention in bare feet, wearing a granny dress and demanding to sit in the chair that belonged to the chairman of the delegation, a gray-haired, dignified old gentleman named John Tuohey.

"He came to me one morning and said, 'Would you look over there in my chair? She's sitting in it.' I went over to her and I said, 'That's his chair.' She answered, in the egalitarian style of the sixties, 'If I was elected, I can sit in any chair I want to sit in.' That's what changed me," Wall explained. "The arrogance of the sixties told me that we're not going to rule a pluralistic country with that kind of elitist attitude." "Have the Democrats changed since 1972?" I asked. "The damn party did it again with Mondale in '84," Wall replied, "making him take a woman for Vice President. Bad mistake. Making him do it. He had to do it. He looked like a wimp to do it. He did it."

Two of the most popular vote-getters in Illinois exemplify the moderate, pragmatic style of Illinois politics: the fourth-term Republican governor Jim Thompson, currently the nation's longest-serving chief executive, and the second-term Democratic senator Alan Dixon.

Almost everyone I spoke to described Jim Thompson as a lucky politician. "He's remarkably successful and remarkably lucky," Tom Rouser said. In 1982 Thompson barely defeated Adlai Stevenson III, by about 5,000 votes out of 3.6 million cast. In 1986 he defeated Stevenson again, this time by a somewhat more comfortable margin, though the strength of his victory was widely attributed to Stevenson's problems in the Democratic primary (Democratic voters nominated Lyndon LaRouche followers for lieutenant governor and attorney general, forcing Stevenson to resign from the Democratic ticket and run on a third-party line).

"Thompson has not been a fluke," said Vincent Demuzio, the chairman of the state Democratic Party. "He has been a hard worker. He's done very well with patronage." According to Rouser, Thompson "makes his deals with the Democrats in the Senate, and he gives them patronage." Roeser added, "The governor has been very much like a Nelson Rockefeller. He worships bigness and big government. He's not burdened with convictions particularly, so that consequently he can turn on a dime." It is precisely those attributes that make Thompson effective in the world of Illinois politics.

Senator Alan Dixon also succeeds in Illinois by steering clear of ideology. "Dixon understands how to address this split-party state," said Basil Talbott, Jr., a Washington correspondent for the Chicago Sun Times. "He's neither a conservative nor a liberal." Talbott, like several others I spoke to, contrasted Dixon with Paul Simon, his colleague in the U.S. Senate, who mounted an unsuccessful presidential campaign earlier this year. When Dixon and Simon were in the state senate together, both representing downstate districts, "they were both fairly progressive," Talbott said. "They would have called themselves liberals without objection. Over the years, however, Simon has maintained his ideology, and Dixon has changed as the state has changed. He now describes himself as moderate to conservative."

In discussing the national Democratic Party, Ed Murnane, a former Reagan activist and now the deputy director of the Bush campaign in Illinois, observed that "Alan Dixon is not really a factor in what the Democratic Party is." But he is a lot stronger in Illinois than Paul Simon. "Al is called Al the Pal," Murnane said. "Everybody likes Al Dixon. He's going to be re elected. Dixon was up two years ago and nobody wanted to run against him. They are lining up to run against Paul Simon right now." Illinois Democrats could not have been impressed with Simon's performance as a presidential candidate this year. He carried no states but Illinois. Moreover, by suspending his presidential campaign and holding on to his delegates, Simon offended Jesse Jackson and created resentment among Chicago blacks.

Illinois's grand master of skillful, shrewd, pragmatic politics was, of course, Mayor Richard Daley. What Chicagoans have discovered in the twelve years since Daley's death is that his power was essentially personal. He did not leave much of an institutional legacy. "There was not a Democratic Party machine," one of the late Mayor Harold Washington's top aides told The Washington Post last year. "It was a Daley machine. It was almost a cult of personality. Once you removed the personality, it was all over."

"The Democratic machine had fallen apart by the time Harold Washington came along," Basil Talbott observed. He cited a number of factors that contributed to its demise. During the 1970s the courts ruled that the city could no longer fire people for political reasons. Urban crime increased. "A precinct captain doesn't want to go down the street and knock on the door anymore," Talbott said. Television also made a difference. Candidates could now communicate with voters directly instead of through a political organization.

The key factor in the death of the machine was the rise of racial politics. Machines work best in an issueless environment. Machine politicians are concerned with material resources, such as jobs, contracts, and benefits. Once divisions over issues emerge, groups begin to see one another as opponents rather than competitors. Their goals become mutually exclusive.

The black-power movement introduced the politics of polarization into American cities during the 1960s. That made it difficult for political machines to survive. Blacks could no longer be bought off. They challenged the machines that had excluded them from power, and whites responded fearfully and aggressively. In a polarized environment candidates typically win overwhelming majorities from one race and almost no votes from the other. The days of across-the-board machine majorities are over. Racial politics destroyed the Chicago machine, and it endangers the presidential candidacies of both George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Neither is a particularly ideological politician, and so both ought to do well in Illinois. But racial politics creates pitfalls for each of them.

When Harold Washington was first elected mayor, in 1983, Chicago experienced something new. Tom Roeser, who describes himself as a movement conservative, called it "movement politics." Movement politics is the politics of a cause. "There is a strong, militant, black-activist movement in Chicago," said Bruce DuMont, a leading Chicago political commentator. "Harold Washington was picked up and swept into office by that movement."

Washington's mobilization of black voters sparked a countermobilization of white ethnics, the people who had been the backbone of the Daley machine. The symbol of their resentment was "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, the leader of the anti-Washington movement in the so-called council wars of 1983-1986. Once the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, Vrdolyak left the party to run (unsuccessfully) against Washington for mayor in 1987. He has now joined the Republican Party, which nominated him for clerk of the Cook County circuit court this year, an important patronage position.

Vrdolyak symbolizes the white-ethnic problem that Democrats have been having in cities all over the country for the past twenty years. The rise of the black-power movement and the outbreak of urban violence in the late 1960s stimulated a law-and-order backlash among urban working-class whites. While conservatives and racist whites were leaving the Democratic Party in the South, "urban populists" were drifting toward the Republican Party in the North: George Wallace, meet Archie Bunker.

"There was no future for Ed Vrdolyak in the Democratic Party," David Axelrod, a Democratic political consultant from Chicago, told me. "The question is whether he can persuade ethnic whites that his case is exemplary, that there's no place for them in the Democratic Party either." Roeser described "a hemorrhage of white voters in the Democratic Party," adding that "Harold Washington and his followers really didn't cry at all when whites left the party. They saw it as strengthening their own hand."

The trend seems to be for white ethnics to vote Republican, particularly in national and statewide elections. But they rarely become Republicans, because the action in local races is still on the Democratic ballot. "It is still incredibly difficult for a Republican to get elected to anything in Cook County," Axelrod said. He noted that Vrdolyak did not bring any major white-ethnic committeemen with him into the Republican Party, even though Washington had cut off their patronage. They had their revenge, however, after Washington's death, last November. Twenty-four white aldermen joined with five blacks to make Eugene Sawyer Chicago's acting mayor. Sawyer, a black, was a staunch ally of the Daley machine who sometimes consorted with Mayor Washington's enemies during the council wars. Sawyer is the kind of black politician white ethnics feel they can "deal with."

Like Washington, Vrdolyak thrives on racial polarization. Republicans are actually of two minds about that. Ed Murnane is a good example of white ethnic realignment. "I grew up in a Democratic family," he told me. "My father is a Democrat. I'm an Irish Catholic. The first campaign I was ever involved in was in 1960, when I delivered literature for Jack Kennedy. My family is an Irish, union, blue-collar family with a couple of priests and nuns, a typical Irish Catholic family. Everyone in my family, with the exception of my father, was an avid Ronald Reagan supporter in 1980 and again in 1984."

I asked Murnane whether he considered Vrdolyak a racist. "Well, he left the Democratic Party because he didn't get along with Harold Washington--so maybe," Murnane replied. Then he said, "Even if he is a racist, I'm not sure it's a negative issue in the Republican Party, because there are a lot of other people who feel the same way. A lot of people who moved from Chicago out to the suburbs did it for that reason. They see the city changing and they say, 'Let's move out.' So even if Vrdolyak said, 'I am becoming a Republican because there are too many blacks in the Democratic Party,' is that being a racist? Absolutely. Is that going to hurt him in the Republican Party? Maybe. Maybe not."

In the end, the race issue works both ways for Republicans. According to Bruce DuMont, Republican leaders were a little nervous about putting a candidate like Vrdolyak on the party ticket. "Vrdolyak's being on the ticket will increase black turnout in the general election. That will increase the likelihood of Democrats' carrying the state. The Bush people were not happy with Vrdolyak, because in their view, it will only ignite the black vote, and that will go against him."

Northern white ethnics and white southerners are the swing voters of American politics. "Take a look at the swing votes in the South that went for Reagan in 1980 and stayed there in 1984," DuMont said. "They're very much like the ethnic votes on the northwest and southwest sides of Chicago." In fact, the South and urban areas like Chicago have developed similar two-tiered political systems. People continue to vote Democratic in local elections, where ideological conflicts are muted. But they leave the Democratic Party in large numbers when they vote for higher offices, where ideology is more salient. DuMont predicted that "just as the southern swing voters of 1980 and '84 aren't ready to move back to the Democrats for President, you'll find the same pattern in Chicago."

I asked DuMont if he thought the Republican Party was going to look more and more like Ed Vrdolyak, and the Democratic Party more and more like Harold Washington. "Yes," he replied. "It is already true in the city. I think it will now move to Cook County." In other words, the Chicago model of racial politics is not being contained. It is spreading. It has already spread to presidential politics. Racial antagonism was very close to the surface in this year's Illinois Democratic presidential primary. According to a CBS News-New York Times exit poll, Illinois Democrats who voted for Paul Simon and those who voted for Michael Dukakis had a two-to-one negative opinion of Jesse Jackson. Jackson voters were slightly positive toward Simon and slightly negative toward Dukakis. As in most of this year's Democratic primaries, the Illinois vote was deeply polarized along racial lines. Jackson carried more than 90 percent of the black vote but only seven percent of the white vote in his home state. In fact, a pattern became evident in the Democratic primaries this year: the higher the percentage of blacks in a state, the worse Jackson did among white voters. Thus Jackson did better among white voters in Wisconsin than in Illinois; he did better among whites in Connecticut than in New York. As an urban white ethnic, Michael Dukakis ought to have more appeal for white ethnic voters in Illinois than George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, or Walter Mondale did. But those voters will be watching very carefully to see how his relationship with Jesse Jackson develops, especially at the Democratic National convention.

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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