After Bob Dole snubbed his convention this summer, NAACP head Kweisi Mfume fumed about the GOP's failure to reach out to minorities. "Part of the reason African-Americans, Hispanics and Jews are binding their association and allegiance with the Democratic Party," he charged, "is because Republican candidates continue their tradition of not reaching out."
Since then, the GOP has tried to mend its ways. The party has made a concerted effort to reach out to these groups. In late August, for instance, Dole told a group of black journalists in Nashville that the GOP "will never be whole until it earns the broad support of African-Americans by speaking to their hopes." This followed a GOP convention which featured the likes of Colin Powell, J.C. Watts, and Steven Goldsmith.
Moreover, it followed Dole's selection of a running mate universally hailed for his appeal to the black and Jewish communities - a man that has been so supportive of Israel for so long that he is known in Tel Aviv as "Yitzhak Kemp." Jack Kemp has begun to follow through on Dole's Nashville overtures, calling for a "New Civil Rights Agenda" during a speech in South Central Los Angeles.
What is interesting here is not only that this outreach is being tried at all - but also that it might just work, if seriously pursued. The African-American and Jewish-American communities have long been the Democratic Party's strongest constituencies, supporting Democratic congressional candidates by margins as high as 90 percent and 80 percent, respectively - even in the 1994 election, when Republicans broke the Democrats' long hold on the House. However, a closer look reveals that both core Democratic constituencies may actually be in play.
To start with, increasing numbers of black and Jewish voters no longer describe themselves as liberals. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies released a poll earlier this year which shows that African-Americans are almost equally likely to describe themselves as conservatives (30 percent), moderate (32 percent), or liberal (31 percent). Likewise, a poll released in July by the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council shows that only 29 percent of respondents described themselves as "liberal." When two-thirds of black and Jewish-Americans reject the "liberal" label, liberalism may be pronounced dead.
Moreover, responses to issue-specific questions show that black and Jewish voters may be even more conservative than they are willing to admit. The Joint Center's study show that three out of four African-Americans surveyed favor stiff prison terms for repeat offenders, a constitutional amendment to allow prayer in the public schools, and $500-per-child school tax credits.
In the Jewish community, a highly publicized poll of northern California Jews revealed that even self-described moderates were disproportionately likely to favor Republican positions. For instance, three out of four of these "moderates" favored the controversial "three strikes and you're out" legislation to lock up repeat offenders. Some minorities are reluctant to describe themselves as conservatives, even when they agree with basic conservative positions.
Why then do black and Jewish votes lag behind black and Jewish opinion? The GOP may still carry a certain stigma based on its past reputation for insensitivity to minority concerns. There are signs, however, that this stigma is being overcome and that conservative opinions are slowly starting to turn into Republican votes. The Republican party now boasts two African-American House members, four Jewish House members and one Jewish senator.
Moreover, in Pittsburgh's predominately black Ward 12, Republicans won 58 percent of the vote in 1995, up from 8 percent in 1991, helping the GOP gain control of Allegheny County. In 1994, three Republican governors - Bill Weld of Massachusetts, George Voinovich of Ohio, and Jim Edgar of Illinois - won majorities of their states' Jewish vote. These trends are likely to increase, since young black and Jewish voters are more likely to vote Republican than their parents.
This transition is not difficult to understand. Black and Jewish voters share the general public's concerns about crime rates, moral values, and welfare reform. Both communities, moreover, have seen the dangers of keeping all their eggs in one basket. If these communities learned nothing else from the 1994 elections, it should have been that one cannot build bridges to only one party, since that party can quickly find itself out of power. By encouraging both parties to compete for their allegiance, minority communities can gain the greatest strength, unity, and security.
Kenneth L. Marcus is chairman of the Young Jewish Leadership PAC of Washington; Alvin Williams is executive director of Black America's PAC of Washington.