Democrats need ethnic voters to win elections

Special to Times of Oman

In this November's mid-term elections, the Democratic Party will be focused on winning back the governorships and legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Democrats lost decisively in these important states in 2010, giving Republicans the opportunity to institute far-reaching changes in programmes, benefits, and regulations that, for generations, had provided economic security for the middle class.

As Democrats are currently debating their 2014 electoral strategies, not a week passes without an article in the major media outlet arguing what the party must do to regain lost ground in these critically important  battleground states.

Some Democrats make the case for doubling down on increasing voter turnout among those constituencies that have become the new core vote of the party: youth, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and professional/educated women.

They make the case that this approach worked for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 and so if these same groups can be energised again in the mid-term contests, Democrats can win in 2014. But although Obama won these same states in 2008 and 2012, it doesn't  convey that Democrats will automatically win them in a non-presidential election year.

National contests mobilise different voters than local races, and so it cannot be assumed that those who voted for President Obama will vote for a Democrat or even vote at all in more localised contests. 
What is missing from this strategy is that it gives short shrift to substantial groups of voters that Democrats have ignored for decades.

According to the 2010 Census, over one-third of all residents in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants from European and Mediterranean countries.

Many retain a strong attachment to their heritage, belong to ethnic organisations and churches, and remain connected through their ethnic media.

Many of them also have deep roots in the labour movement and in the Democratic Party. A decade ago, based on polling conducted by my brother John Zogby, we found that these ethnic voters embrace values that are at once progressive and traditional.

They are progressive on the role of government in public education, health care, Social Security, and protecting the minimum wage and labour standards. At the same time, they are traditional in their attachment to their families and their communities.

These ethnic voters were once core constituents of the Democratic Party, but along the way, the party stopped talking to them and directing its message to them. As a result, Democrats lost their support.

This disconnect came through quite clearly for me one night in 1984 at an event I have often spoken of in the intervening years.

It was the National Italian American Foundation Gala in Washington, DC, featuring speeches by Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan.

Mondale spoke first. His speech had nine applause lines — most came when he mentioned the name of his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. The rest of the speech was a litany of issues and pledges, as in:
"I'm for the teachers..." and "I'm for unions..."

Ronald Reagan came next and after a pause began something like this: "My grandmother, like yours, came to this country with nothing but her hopes and dreams. She worked her fingers to the bone, believing in the promise of America that someday one of her own could run for president of this great country. I stand before you the beneficiary of her hard work, the fulfilment of her dreams."

I left that night knowing that Reagan would win the Italian vote — and he did. What should have been of concern to Democrats was that the speech that Reagan had given was one that had been given by decades of Democratic leaders. It evoked themes of family, heritage, hard work and the values and promise of America. It represented the very messages Democrats once carried, but had since had lost.

In reality, Mondale had a programme designed to ensure economic security for middle class ethnic voters, but he wasn't talking to them in language that showed he understood their identity and their values. Over the years, the disconnect between Democrats and ethnic has only grown.

This November, Democrats will have chance to reconnect with ethnic voters and win support from them while still courting other key groups. It is not an either-or proposition.

Immigration reform, expanding health care coverage, creating good jobs, promoting women's rights for equal pay and opportunity, improving public education, and protecting workers rights are issues that affect all Americans. But in order to win, Democrats have to broaden their appeal and expand their support base by speaking directly to older immigrant groups, as well as to newer immigrants — white ethnics, as well as African Americans and Latinos.

European and Mediterranean want to be recognised and respected. And because they are connected through their churches, clubs, and media it's not that difficult to reach them.

If Democrats stop treating ethnic voters as if they were an undefined mass of "white" voters and speak to them as descendants of Irish, Italian, Polish, Ukrainian, Greek, and Lebanese immigrants whose history is celebrated and whose values are embraced, they stand a chance of winning them back.  
European and Mediterranean were once Democratic voters and there is no reason why they can't be again.

The author is the President of Arab American Institute. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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