The New American Majority

Women and minorities swung the election to the Democrats. Can the Republicans now claim them?

Last week's most arresting political development was not Ken Starr's song and wiretap dance, but the election of a former football player named Julius Caesar Watts Jr. to lead the House Republican Conference. What made news was not his victory over a more experienced rival, but the fact that Watts is black. For an African American to occupy a leadership position in the GOP is about as unusual as a cattle drive in the Bronx. No wonder some conservatives are grousing about "Republican affirmative action."

Not to worry: Watts is as right-wing as Republicans get. Yet his elevation, along with the selection of kinder, gentler Robert Livingston to replace the nefarious Newt, puts a human face on the Republican response to the 1998 election. The party of the pulpit, the boardroom, and the cigar bar has adopted a new image to suit its millennial ambitions. Let's hear it for the new buzzword "compassionate conservative," an oxymoron in search of a mandate.

The election itself was enough to make a pundit plotz. To nearly universal surprise, the Democrats gained six House seats and broke even in the Senate. The right-wing press was quick to blame the GOP for not being conservative enough, but party professionals, who know how to read exit polls, had a very different take. They were alarmed to discover that women and minorities had come out in greater-than-anticipated numbers, swinging close races to the Democrats. The result is what the conservative Weekly Standard called "A Teetering Republican Majority."

Even more ominous is the premonition that Reagan Democrats might be ready to come home. The Catholic vote (representing 27 percent of the electorate) tilted Democratic, and Jews did not abandon their party despite the crude effort by Gingrich to tar Clinton with a pro-PLO stance. Cementing this alliance of minorities was the African American vote, which was so massive in key states that it swept away several Republican senators and governors, among them Al D'Amato. Not only did his off-the-putz remark cost him a chunk of the Jewish vote, but in upstate cities like Rochester, the black vote was up by a striking 15 percent. That sank D'Amato's scheme to paint Schumer as a carpetbagger from Canarsie. Meanhwile in California, Barbara Boxer, considered too liberal to hold her Senate seat, rode to reelection on the strength of minority voters (including Asians, despite her opponent Matt Fong's Chinese surname.)

But the most important thing this election demonstrated was the centrality of the gender gap. Despite periodic predictions that it would fade into the mists of postfeminism, this phenomenon has proven to be a fixture of American political life. So many races are decided by women voters (who have outnumbered men in every election since the 1960s) that by now gender has inflected the very image of the two parties—as in "daddy" Republicans and "mommy" Democrats. This is not good news for the GOP since, as a rule, women prefer Democratic Congressional candidates by a margin of between four and eight percent, while men, as you might imagine, tend to vote Republican.

The gender gap is starkest among whites. Indeed, the Republicans owe their Congressional majority to the fact that, in 1994, white men gravitated to GOP candidates by a whopping 26-point margin, which obliterated the Democrats' six-point lead among women. But that was the year of the Angry White Male. Since then, the Republicans' cauca-dude base has shrunk (thanks largely to the defection of union members), while the Democrats have held onto women voters—and that has been the key to their survival.

Even the much-touted decline in turnout does not apply equally to both sexes. "The women's vote is not falling off as fast as the men's vote," says Anita Press Ferguson of the National Women's Political Caucus. "In fact, women voted in slightly greater numbers in '98 than they did in '94." When you add the fired-up black vote, and the growing impact of Hispanics (who now make up 5 percent of the electorate), it's clear why the Democrats gained ground. Within a week of the election, Gingrich had retired to the lecture circuit (where his reward for getting out of the way will be $50,000 speaker fees), Watts had been promoted, and GOP spinners were talking about running a woman for vice president. All this is a sign that Republicans are waking up to reality. The right may live in a world where white males stand for the whole, but in the real world, where elections are decided, women and minorities—when they team up and turn out—are the new majority.

this is no news to Bill Clinton. He has always understood the power of women and minorites. Which is why, when the election found him mired in scandal, he sent the emblematic First Lady to bolster Schumer and Boxer while he toured black churches. That strategy was not so different from the one he had used to defeat two patriarchal Republicans. Indeed, if women had voted like men, George Bush would have come much closer to beating Clinton, and so would Bob Dole. For this president, the gender gap has been an opportunity.

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