Mixed mandate

Democrats owe their election victory to their traditional liberal base -- and moderate voters, too.

By Joan Walsh
Published November 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

The Democrats owe their upset victory in Tuesday's congressional election to high turnout from their traditional base -- African-Americans, union members, women and Latinos -- as well as strong support from moderates and independents.

These results, gleaned from exit polls, show that Democrats could have as difficult a time keeping their diverse supporters happy as the Republicans have had since their resounding, but legislatively disappointing, 1994 congressional landslide.

Zeroing in on California, Governor-elect Gray Davis received roughly 80 percent of the Latino vote and 85 percent of the black vote, according to CBS News exit polls. Sixty percent of women voters supported Davis. Union member turnout was a stunning one-third higher than nonunion turnout -- and union members supported Davis by a 5 to 2 margin.

In the California Senate race, the picture was similar: Incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer won 85 percent of the black vote, 72 percent of the Latino vote and 57 percent of women voters, according to CNN exit polls. (That Davis apparently got more support from women voters than Boxer is intriguing.) CNN didn't track union households, but Boxer's share was likely at least as high as Davis'. Boxer also got 63 percent of voters who didn't vote in the 1996 election, who are likely to be disaffected liberal or minority voters.

And yet the liberal Boxer also owed her election to unlikely allies: moderates and independents. Boxer got 57 percent of voters who identified themselves as moderate, and 50 percent -- compared to 42 percent for challenger Matt Fong -- of those registered independent. Davis won moderates by a 2 to 1 margin. The percentage of the California electorate that identified itself as moderate rose from 44 percent in 1994 and 1996 to 49 percent in 1998, while conservatives dropped from 36 percent of the electorate to 29 percent.

In the New York Senate race, the story was much the same: overwhelming support for U.S. Rep. Charles Schumer from African-Americans, Latinos and women, but strong backing from independents and moderates, too. Moderates increased their share of the New York electorate from 43 percent in 1994 to 51 percent in 1998.

The strong showing by loyal Democrats confounded the common wisdom that in a low-turnout election the edge goes to Republicans. "My judgment is that even though we had an overall downturn in turnout, the Democratic base was mobilized," says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. Minority turnout was up in some key states, including North and South Carolina, Maryland, Illinois and probably New York and California, Gans said.

But heavy support from moderates and independents could make it difficult for Democrats to reward their loyal base with liberal policy or programs -- if they were so inclined. "It pulls both ways, and I don't think anybody's prepared to say which [segment of Democratic voters] matters more," says Kathleen Francovic of CBS News Polls.

Still, there's no doubt that African-Americans continue to be the most reliable Democrats, in California and nationwide, and that black leaders will seek a reward for that loyalty in the months to come. An overwhelming 89 percent of the black vote went to Democrats on Tuesday, up 8 percent from 1994. Key Democratic upsets in the South, for instance, are directly attributable to black voters casting around 90 percent of their votes for Democrats in those races. Black voters made up 30 percent of the Georgia electorate in this race, up from 19 percent in 1994.

In California, the black vote rose -- either sharply or slightly, depending on which exit polls you believe. CNN exit polls put the black vote at 7 percent of the electorate, but the Los Angeles Times poll figure was 13 percent. Either way it was significant, since black Californians' share of the overall population is actually going down. "This is a solid voting block of about half a million voters, and it means the Democrats go into every statewide race knowing they have about 350,000 votes in the bank," says California Democratic Party strategist Bob Mulholland. "And that's critical -- in 1990 Pete Wilson only won the governor's race by 250,000 votes."

And black leaders are already seeing a reward for their loyalty, says U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. The Congressional Black Caucus won almost a half-billion dollars in funding for new programs in the recent budget deal, including a $250 million program for out-of-school youth, $156 million in AIDS funding targeted to African-Americans, $41 million in funding for black farmers and several million more for drug treatment.

"They will only do what you make them do, and we twisted some arms to get them to ante up," Waters said. "But I'm not about to lose the leverage of this election turnout. They got to pay." Waters said she'll seek additional funding for drug treatment, health services, alternatives to incarceration and an end to disparate sentencing for those convicted of selling or using crack and powder cocaine, "an issue on which we've had to fight our president," she notes.

Democrats will also owe a debt to labor, at least in California. A strong labor mobilization to defeat Prop. 226 -- which would have restricted unions' political contributions -- paid off in a big jump in Democratic turnout in the June primary. "After that, the labor movement was energized, so we just sat down with them and divided up the state," says Susan Kennedy, who ran the California Democratic Party's get out the vote drive. The effort focused on union members, African-Americans and "occasional voters." The latter group got 8 million pieces of mail before Election Day.

The results "were stunning," Kennedy said. "All over the state I had people in African-American districts telling me they'd never had to wait in line to vote before -- those polls were crowded." And support from union households is believed to be one reason Davis tied Republican Dan Lungren for the white vote.

The reliability of the Latino vote is a little more in question. The Latino share of the California electorate is rising -- from 9 percent in 1994 to 13 percent in 1998. In California, at least, Latinos have always been voted Democratic, but never overwhelmingly -- until recently. First Prop. 187 in 1994, which restricted public services for immigrants, and then Prop. 227 this year, which abolished bilingual education, brought Latinos surging to the polls. With 80-plus percent support for Boxer and Davis, following up 75 percent support for President Clinton in 1996, some analysts are beginning to call the growing Latino vote a cornerstone of the Democratic base.

But others are skeptical. "I think the real story about Latinos in this election is that George W. Bush got almost half the vote in Texas," says Gregory Rodriguez, a research fellow at Pepperdine University who tracks Latino and Asian voting patterns. Rodriguez says Latino turnout didn't rise in this election, although the number of Latino voters did -- to over 1 million -- because the population is growing.

And no one can say with certainty which way Asian voters will drift as their numbers increase. National exit polls found Asian voters going for Boxer and Davis in California. And yet barriers of language and culture have made reliable polling in the Asian community difficult. The Los Angeles Times exit poll found Fong actually had a slight edge with Asians, 51 to 48 percent. In San Francisco, the Chinese American Voter Education Committee says its exit polls showed Chinese American voters going for Fong, 2 to 1, while supporting Davis in the governor's race. Rodriguez, who has studied Asian voting patterns nationally, says he's inclined to trust the CAVEC poll more than the national polls.

He thinks Democrats who are counting Latinos and Asians solidly in their camp are mistaken. "The Latino vote in California is a default vote, an anti-Pete Wilson vote, and I think the Democrats are taking it for granted," says Rodriguez.

While Democrat Bob Mulholland won't cop to taking Latinos for granted, he does confirm part of Rodriguez's electoral theory. "You're gonna be seeing pictures of Pete Wilson in our campaign literature for a long time."

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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