The Winning Margin

GLENN McNATT

November 14, 1992|By GLENN McNATT

For years the dirty little secret of the Democratic Party was that, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, no Democratic presidential candidate since FDR has won a majority of the white popular vote.

This year, of course, all that was supposed to change. Bill Clinton aimed his appeal to middle-class suburbanites and Reagan Democrats, two groups whose defection from the party in presidential contests have kept Democrats out of the White House for the past 12 years.

When the first exit-poll data began coming in this week, it looked as though Mr. Clinton's strategy had indeed paid off. Early polls suggested that he had won a plurality of white voters by a margin of as much as 4 percentage points.

But by mid-week the picture had changed dramatically. The respected New York polling firm Voter Research and Surveys reported revised estimates that indicated Mr. Bush had won more white votes than Mr. Clinton by a margin of 40 percent to 39 percent.

Only the fact that black voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly for the Democratic nominee allowed Mr. Clinton to eke out a plurality in the popular vote. Had black voters stayed home, George Bush would have been re-elected president.

The fact that Mr. Clinton ultimately failed to break the pattern of past Democratic presidential candidates in regard to white voters and yet still managed to win the election undoubtedly will force a major reinterpretation of the campaign just ended.

For one thing, it shows that blacks -- who made up just 9 percent of the electorate this year but gave 83 percent of their votes to the Democratic candidate -- clearly provided the margin of victory for Mr. Clinton.

That development is even more surprising considering the fact that black turnout -- a description of the number of people who actually vote as a proportion of the black voting age population -- actually fell this year by 13 percent from its 1988 level.

Thus Mr. Clinton's election shows that it is now possible to win the presidency without a majority of white voters. A candidate DTC who draws a good share of moderate whites -- but not necessarily a majority -- and who receives solid black support can still win.

This in fact is what Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates in the South have been doing for some time now. Mr. Clinton has simply transferred what might be called the ''Southern Democrats' strategy'' to the national arena.

That being the case, one can reasonably expect a Clinton administration to be far more solicitous of black concerns than previous administrations. That, at least, has been the pattern in the Southern states where Democrats have won office with strong black support.

Many Southern Democratic senators, for example, voted to confirm Clarence Thomas as a justice on the Supreme Court largely because they feared alienating black voters, who strongly supported Judge Thomas in polls last year.

Since then, black support for Justice Thomas has eroded as it became clear that his race would not prevent him from allying himself with the court's conservative faction. Still, the episode demonstrated the clout blacks wielded as a consequence of their critical role in electing Southern moderates.

It's traditional for groups that support the winning candidate to demand a share of the political spoils. Having not only voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Clinton but also having provided the winning margin, blacks now should be in a strong position to press their claim on national issues of special importance to them, such as jobs, education and aid to the cities.

The irony in all this, of course, is that Mr. Clinton seemed to spend much of his campaign refuting suggestions that he had ignored black voters. The rap was that in an attempt to attract suburban, middle-class whites he made a conscious decision to play down the issues blacks cared about.

Thus some interpreted his emphasis on welfare reform as a coded appeal to racial prejudice. His widely publicized contretemps with Jesse Jackson over Sister Souljah's inane remarks in the wake of the Los Angeles riots were construed as an attempt to distance himself from his party's most visible black leader.

On Election Day, black voters showed they weren't buying any of that. They voted their interests and their hopes for change and thereby helped their man win, which is the way politics is supposed to work in this country.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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