The delegation at this year's Republican National Convention is the most racially diverse the party has ever seen. Minorities, primarily blacks and Hispanics, make up 17 percent of the delegates. That's up from 10 percent four years ago, and just six percent back in 1996. The Republican Party has made a good deal of progress in recent years with minority voters, but as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports, there's still a lot the party could be? and many say should be? doing to get minority votes.
When speaking of the Republican legacy among African-Americans, party officials are fond of pointing out that theirs is the party of Lincoln. It was President Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, who ended slavery back in 1865. But that was a long time ago and for many years, neither party was all that interested in attracting black voters. But then President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, implemented his so-called New Deal in the 1930s and 40s. It was a set of policies designed to help the poor, and it had a significant and positive impact on the African-American community. Blacks started voting Democratic in record numbers, and it's been that way ever since. In the presidential election of 2000, for instance, exit polls showed that ninety percent of African-Americans voted for the Democratic candidate, Al Gore.
"I've never been a Democrat," says Lolita Jackson. She comes from a staunchly Democratic family, has a background in business, and has been a registered Republican since 1985, when she turned 18 and was finally old enough to vote. Ms. Jackson is also black. She's the first African-American president of New York City's Metropolitan Republican Club. And she's an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention. Lolita Jackson says the Democratic Party has done a good job of helping minorities survive the condition of poverty. But she says she doesn't think Democrats have done much to help minorities get out of poverty and that's because they haven't had to.
"When you give 90 percent of your vote to one side, neither side is listening to you," she says. "And people don't understand to what degree that's happened. They [the Democrats] don't need us anymore."
But Republicans do, especially in an election as close as this year's presidential race. Lolita Jackson says Republicans need to reach out to minorities. And she says that shouldn't be too difficult, since polls show that most African-Americans and Latinos agree with the Republican Party on some of the most important social issues of the day.
"I'm not a social conservative, but I know many African-Americans who are," she says. "And I really don't understand how if someone is anti-abortion, if they are against gay rights, and if they're for school vouchers, why the Democratic Party's the place that they want to go."
Hispanic voters also tend to favor the Democrats? though not nearly to the degree that African-Americans do. In 2000, 62 percent of Hispanics said they had voted for Al Gore. So why do so many minority voters cast their ballots for Democrats? Well, if these voters in New York City's Times Square are any indication, it's because Republicans have a really bad reputation in minority communities.
"They just have no idea what day-to-day life is on the subway, with food stamps, with all these different things that we have to deal with all the time," says one man. "I don't know that they even have to face [it] on a daily basis."
"People tend to think, whether it's true or not, that Republicans and some of their policies show it protect people's money interests better than some others," says a woman. "I tend to vote for what I think is the public good, and I don't think the Republican Party has ever been concerned about the public good."
"In my humble opinion, I think the Republican Party is viewed by the African-American as oppression, injustice, not a lot of opportunities for the African-Americans," says another man.
But if you talk to Republicans, they'll tell you that simply isn't true? that their party has a lot to offer minorities? especially the small but growing number of blacks and Hispanics who have made it into the middle class. They'll say what you just heard is an example of how minority voters have been co-opted by the Democratic Party. But who's responsible for this? Well, Republicans, according to Richard Nadler, a conservative media consultant who specializes in advertising for minority audiences. Mr. Nadler says it's easy to get your message out to minority voters, thanks to the popularity of ethnic media outlets like Black Entertainment Television and the Spanish-language network, Univision. But until recently, Mr. Nadler says, Republicans just haven't bothered.
"The radio stations that play black music, the newspapers that cater to black interests all are very unique, targeted media that African-Americans listen to with great frequency, and that Republicans, traditionally, have not bothered to address," he says. "In other words, the fact that we have core messages that appeal to members of this community has been largely negated by the fact that we have simply been absent from the venues that could matter."
Richard Nadler says it's been an example of what he calls historic inertia. Because minorities have always voted Democratic, Republicans have mistakenly assumed they always will, thus encouraging minorities to continue voting Democratic. But, Mr. Nadler says, that's changing.
"It is being gradually understood within conservative circles that they cannot win votes among minorities if they do not talk directly to minorities," he says. "And as this realization filters down, we're beginning to see a little bit more direct communication activity on the part of the official Republican Party."
Activity like the daily Spanish-language press briefings that have been taking place at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Hispanics are the largest minority group at this year's gathering. Still, Republicans have a long way to go if they want to catch up to Democrats. With a minority representation rate of 17 percent, this year's convention may be the most diverse RNC ever. But it doesn't exactly stack up to a typical Democratic National Convention. Four years ago, 32 percent of the democratic delegates were minorities. This year, it was closer 40 percent.