Building Coalitions of Color: Racial Changes in the Electorate

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a very important story on U.S. politics that has not gotten much attention, the “seismic political shift” in composition of the voting population in many US cities. The article gives the central example of last fall’s New York City scramble, where most of the post-election attention to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection was on how much money he spent to get such a narrow margin of victory.

The article points to much more important political issues than the money and margin in the Bloomberg and other recent elections:

Since 2000, William C. Thompson Jr. has been elected the city’s first black comptroller, Helen M. Marshall has been elected the first black borough president of Queens, and John C. Liu, elected last month to succeed Mr. Thompson, has become the first Asian-American to win citywide office.

It appears that candidates of color in cities like NYC are having an easier time of being elected, especially in larger political units. Citing political consultant Bruce N. Gyory, the Times piece summarizes:

In November’s election, 46 percent of the voters identified themselves as white, 23 percent as black, 21 percent as Hispanic and 7 percent as Asian, according to exit polls by Edison Media Research. The white vote has “bounced around 50 percent as far back as 2001, but this is the first citywide exit poll showing the white proportion being under 50 percent.”

The growing Latino vote is central to this shift. Many are immigrants who are gradually becoming citizens (like other immigrants of color), and the children of the immigrants are also gradually becoming old enough to vote. Gyory makes another very important point:

Gyory said, “that Hispanics constituted 21 percent of the electorate with no Hispanic running citywide exploded conventional wisdom that Hispanics only vote with a Hispanic in a race for citywide office.”

“This polyglot electorate will demand the jigsaw-puzzle skills of coalition-building and diplomacy,” Mr. Gyory said. “Bloomberg will likely be seen historically as a transition figure who got elected with the old base — Jewish and white Catholic — intact, helped by his ability to win a sizable share of minority votes. But Thompson’s and Liu’s ability to begin reuniting a minority-led coalition around Democrats augurs that the future of New York City is where minority voters are an ever firmer, albeit diverse, majority.”

There has been much discussion, and some books (see Vaca’s The Presumed Alliance, for example), on whether Latinos and African Americans can build successful political coalitions, with evidence yes in some places, and no in others. It appears that in the New York cases noted here, and indeed in the November election of President Barack Obama, that a substantial majority of Latinos, black Americans, and Asian Americans (and some other groups of color too) saw their political interests lining up in the same direction, at least this time.