AMERICAN ELECTIONS: Minorities use their poll power

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The Independent Online
THE EMERGENCE of ethnic minorities as constituencies with clout was one of the hallmarks of the 1998 mid-term elections. What took many by surprise was the extent to which they were prepared to use it.

Turn-out rates for black and Hispanic voters in US elections have always lagged far behind that of whites; their registration rate as voters is also lower. This time, both parties recognised the potential influence of both these groups and set out to court them.

President Clinton exploited to the full his exceptionally high approval rating among black voters. Predominantly Democratic, they could make the difference in many urban centres and in several southern states - if they could be persuaded to vote.

Mr Clinton, seen by an overwhelming majority of blacks almost as an honorary black himself, and gushingly described by the writer Toni Morrison as "America's first black President", achieved what had seemed the impossible, and got the black vote out - or at least considerably more of it than any of his predecessors had done.

In the final days of campaigning, he spoke at a Baptist church service in Baltimore that became a campaign rally, and gave numerous interviews to black-run radio and television stations, appealing to people to vote. The Democratic victories in the Carolinas and Alabama are largely a result of the alliance of 90 per cent of black voters with 30-40 per cent of the white vote. It is an alliance which outnumbered those states' white minorities and has big implications for the future of American politics.

For the vote of Hispanics, the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States, there was stronger competition. Both the Bush brothers wooed the Hispanic vote - easier for Jeb in Florida with anti-Castro Cuban exiles, than for George W. in Texas, with mainly poor Mexican immigrants - with considerable success. Jeb has the almost 70 per cent of Hispanics who voted for him to thank for his election as Governor. The fact that he is married to Mexican-born Columba and is bilingual obviously did him no harm. George W. won more than 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote. The Democratic complexion of Hispanics in California helped save Barbara Boxer's seat for the Democrats.

Large numbers of candidates, especially in the south, voiced campaign advertising, and even addressed meetings, in Spanish, and those with national political aspirations were also keen to show a facility in Spanish. Even Al Gore, whose name is not always synonymous with linguistic felicity, treated crowds to a well-rehearsed political "rap" routine, along the lines of "You say investigate, we say educate", repeating it afterwards - in Spanish.

Republicans, who tried in the campaign's closing days to make political hay of the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky, apparently miscalculated the mood of the electorate and were left to weigh the political fall-out from key losses in New York, California and the South.

Women, blacks and Hispanics rallied to support President Clinton against threatened impeachment, confounding the odds by allowing Democrats to score across the board, including the election's single biggest prize - the governorship of California.

Republicans read the results as a wake-up call. Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said the party "has to get off its dime" and actively court minority voters such as Hispanics, African Americans and others.

George W. Bush, son of the former president, who was reelected by a landslide as governor in Texas , said his victory showed Republicans had to be compassionate and reasonable to win.