RAY SUAREZ: Welcome to a special edition of the Insider Forum from the Online NewsHour. I'm Ray Suarez. If you've been joining us via television for our coverage on the NewsHour and our convention specials at night, you know from time to time during these conventions we've taken a break from reporting the news and covering the events on the convention floor to talk to historians about how these conventions fit into the long sweep of American history.
And for this Insider Forum, I'm joined by two of our historian panel. First, Professor Peniel Joseph, who teaches African-American and American history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and Richard Norton-Smith, who is a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University in Virginia. Great to have you both with us.
We have now come to the end of two weeks of convention coverage. And Richard Norton-Smith, what do you see happening inside the two parties that makes these two conventions sort of part of or a culmination of changes that have been happening in American politics?
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: Well, in a sense, each convention had the same mission; that is to say, each convention tells a narrative. And in the case of both parties, there were some questions about how unified they were, how enthusiastic they were about the presumptive nominee; and beyond that, to what extent they could reach beyond the people in the hall to the people who are watching.
I think the Democrats convincingly put to rest the Clinton melodrama, which dominated much of the coverage leading up to last week. And I think the convention did for Sen. Obama what a convention ideally is supposed to do for a candidate - set him out with, you know, the wind at his back.
We have one more night, arguably the most critical night to go in the Republican convention, but there is no doubt that this party, which came to St. Paul rather despondent about its prospects, feels a whole lot better about, if not necessarily its chances, then about itself.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Richard, for most of the postwar era, the two parties have been discussed as being in flux. Looking at the Republicans, in particular, since we're still in St. Paul, have they come to some new place? Have they finished a four-decade historical or five-decade historical journey?
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: I think so. Of course, parties are living, dynamic creatures, and there's no doubt that there has been a process over the last certainly generation of American politics, perhaps even in the last 40 years in American politics, in which the parties have been defining themselves along more ideological lines. There's very little doubt that the Democratic Party is the liberal party. It doesn't really have a conservative wing - a Southern conservative wing as it did 40 years ago.
It's even more emphatic, I think, that the Republican Party is the conservative party. Its old Northeastern liberal to moderate wing is really a thing of the past.
And I think Gov. Palin's speech last night illustrated better than anything how these Republicans define their constituencies and what are the defining messages that they want to send, not only to the people who are watching in the hopes of picking up votes, but to reinforce the loyalties, cultural as much as economic or anything else.
This is a post-Reagan party which is, as I've said last night, a Rush Limbaugh party.
RAY SUAREZ: Peniel Joseph, what about the Democrats? It's been more than four decades since Fannie Lou Hamer tried to get her delegation seated. Now, three decades since they came up with a new formula for choosing delegates to try to broaden the party. Have the Democrats arrived at where this journey was taking them?
PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think it's still a work in progress, but certainly Barack Obama's nomination's a culmination of opening up the delegate process, something that really started in full earnest 1984 and 1988. Jesse Jackson didn't have proportional representation and they changed the rules following that. And Barack Obama, it turns out, couldn't have won without that proportional representation.
But I still think the party's undergoing an evolution. If anything, what we saw with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, even though there's not ideological differences between their supporters, there's generational differences.
So when we think about the Hillary Clinton supporters who were blue-collar Democrats, certainly she had upper middle class Democrats, but overwhelmingly white women supported that - women who were over 50 and 60 years old, baby boomers. When we think about Obama, overwhelmingly African-American support, liberal, upper-middle class, but the youth vote was really key.
So we have two wings of the Democratic Party. One who are younger, more well-educated; another older wing who are working class, blue-collar women, who are trying to unite, and I think they successfully are uniting around Barack Obama. But certainly, it's still an evolution.
Right now, it's Obama's party and if he wins in November, we're going to say that now we have a new Democratic Party, but it still remains to be seen.
RAY SUAREZ: You know, organized labor was one of the main constituencies of the old Democratic Party. Industrial workers, broadly speaking, were a big part of that constituency. Well, manufacturing is disappearing from this country and so is union membership dwindling as a proportion of the electorate as a whole.
Who's taken the place of those two very important Democratic constituencies inside this new big tent?
PENIEL JOSEPH: Certainly, it's going to be Google and Yahoo workers rather than industrial and smokestack industry workers. So one of the interesting parts of the Obama campaign is the way in which he used the internet.
I mean, there's a real disparity between the way in which the Republicans used the internet this campaign season and Democrats, especially in terms of Obama. Obama got two million small donors via the internet. He's got bloggers and people who are on Twitter, who are communicating and have a virtual Obama nation online that has really buoyed his candidacy and really allowed him to actually raise funds outside the campaign finance system.
So when we think about who's replacing the industrial, smokestack industry workers, it's really this next generation of online and technologically sophisticated information-age workers.
RAY SUAREZ: Go ahead, Richard.
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: I have to add one thing. I think in terms of raw numbers, I think you've seen a trade-off because in many ways beginning really with Richard Nixon and accelerating under Ronald Reagan, you saw a Republican Party that was very skillful in using a lot of cultural issues to peel off exactly those folks who had been mainstays of the old New Deal coalition: urban Catholics, union members and others who felt culturally adrift in the party of McGovern, for example, or even Mondale, and who felt more comfortable under particularly Ronald Reagan.
On the other hand, moving across the aisle are a lot of suburban voters, the suburban women and others, who 30 or 40 years ago might have been called Rockefeller Republicans, who feel increasingly uncomfortable in the party that you saw last night, for example, that Gov. Palin addressed and who feel much more comfortable in the party beginning really with Bill Clinton, accelerated under Al Gore.
You look at the Chicago collar counties, for example, DuPage is a great example. These were classic, overwhelmingly Republican counties, which are now very competitive and in some cases at the presidential level have actually swung to the Democrats.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, this time around, Richard, you've seen a Democratic Party that's preparing to run with - lo and behold - more money than the Republicans; and in many specific races, sometimes two and three times as much money. There's been a lot of attention to cultural conservatives not voting their economic self-interest by backing Republicans. Are rich Democratic donors not voting their economic self-interest too?
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: But they used to be - that used to be a paradox. I mean, that used to be a contradiction in terms - rich Democrats. Maybe part of Bill Clinton's legacy is because exactly of the things you talked about. There are lots of internet, you know, billionaires out there and Hollywood and there are a lot new sources of money.
But let's not overlook the fact that one of the things that sets the Obama candidacy aside is that they have in many ways rewritten campaign finance laws, in some ways, literally. But by tapping into millions of relatively small first-time donors, that's really what has given them - that campaign its advantage up to now.
But you're absolutely right, when you look at the generic numbers in terms of the senatorial/congressional campaign committees, there has certainly been a reversal. Part of that reflects, until now, a relative lack of enthusiasm or confidence on the Republican side, and I think an explosion of, you know, very wealthy, very liberal Democrats.
RAY SUAREZ: Before Franklin Roosevelt, Peniel, a majority of black Americans who registered with a party were Republicans. That took a long time. That was a - took a long time. But there were some sort of break points where it sort of happened in a gush.
Republicans have thought about trying to woo back African-Americans in the last couple of cycles and have been less than successful doing that. Barack Obama aside, they've been less than successful. What's going on there?
PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, the party of Lincoln is a much different party from the party of Reagan. And when you think about the Republican Party and its anti-slavery and its abolitionist roots, it's a much different party than it is now.
African-Americans historically, at least before 1932, voted overwhelmingly Republican. By 1932, with the onset of the New Deal, Republicans still got a share of the vote, the African-American vote, but increasingly African-Americans became part of that New Deal coalition to the point that black leaders told black voters that it was time to turn the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall; the debt has been paid.
When we think about the last Republican presidential candidate to get a significant portion of the black vote, it's going to be the 1960 with Richard Nixon. And we still had the moderate Rockefeller Republicans that Richard alluded to, people like Jackie Robinson, who was a strong race man and a Republican. Jack Kennedy famously tried to get Jackie Robinson's endorsement and Robinson refused to endorse Kennedy and actually endorsed Nixon.
What's interesting about the Kennedy election in 1960 is that Jack Kennedy places a call to Coretta Scott King when Martin Luther King, Jr. is an Atlanta jail and Bobby Kennedy helps a judge sort of set bail for King and Daddy King actually endorses Jack Kennedy, which many people felt was part of the reason why Jack won.
RAY SUAREZ: And Daddy King, Martin Luther King, Sr., had been a Republican.
PENIEL JOSEPH: He had been a Republican and he actually endorsed Jack Kennedy. King himself had stayed out of politics until 1964, where he actually enthusiastically endorsed and campaigned for LBJ. And in 1964, Barry Goldwater got about 6 percent of the black vote.
When we think about electoral realignment, much of the New Deal coalition that Richard Nixon and especially Ronald Reagan was able to peel off from the Democratic Party were its Southern wing, the so-called Dixiecrats, blue-collar voters, white working class voters, and there was a trade-off. By peeling those voters away, they actually made a trade-off in terms of the party's commitment to racial equality and racial justice. So this Republican Party is much different from the party of Abraham Lincoln or the radical Republicans of Thaddeus Stephens and different political officials (inaudible) . . . .
RAY SUAREZ: Oh, Richard, you're jumping out of your skin. Go ahead.
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: No, no, no.
RAY SUAREZ: No, I know this is your sweet spot here.
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: No, no, no. But there is this fascinating, tantalizing, just-beyond-the-horizon, you know, every-four-years dream, you know, that Republicans can find social conservatives, church-going, traditional-value believing African-Americans, and there is - you know, there is some anecdotal evidence.
For example, in Ohio, where there was a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, President Bush doubled his share of the African-American vote from the first election to his reelection and got in the upper teens, almost 20 percent of the vote. That is, I suspect, probably been washed away by subsequent events.
But there is - it isn't as if Republicans, and particularly conservatives, have abandoned the notion of going after African-American voters. It's just that they haven't found the formula and they are themselves so wedded to social conservatism that it's not surprising they would think that there's some great potential realignment by finding many African-Americans who share some of their social views, but not clearly their economic views and not the long history in terms of the civil rights movement and the legislation that it produced.
RAY SUAREZ: During the apex of the realignment of the South toward the Republican Party, it had become almost terra incognita to the Democrats. But it seems like they're starting to claw back, make some gains that coalitions of progressive whites and blacks, university towns, factory towns are starting to remake the case in a re-industrializing South. Do the Democrats have a shot in the South again?
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: Well, I mean, the old South is giving way to the new South. I mean, that's the real conflict and it's a fascinating one that's going on. You go to a state like North Carolina, a state that repeatedly sent Jesse Helms to the Senate, but never by more than 54 percent of the vote, even then.
And now, you look at the folks who are coming in because of the Golden Triangle. I mean, you know, the kind of folks that that attracts with a significantly energized African-American voter base. Clearly, the Obama people believe they're already identifying millions of unregistered African-American voters in the South, and indeed nationwide. And they believe that if they can get these folks to the polls that that will spell the difference in places like North Carolina, Virginia, which demographically is the example of - you know, exhibit A of what you're talking about.
Virginia is a very different state from what it was in 1976 when it was the only Southern state that Gerald Ford carried against a Southerner named Jimmy Carter - particularly Northern Virginia, which has become Blue. So it's a classic Purple state. Virginia, North Carolina, Florida is always close, and there are other states that could be in play. That in itself represents a fairly significant change in the electoral calculus.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Peniel, John Edwards, Max Cleland, Tim Kaine, Bob Graham of Florida, they came to power, came to office with significant African-American support.
PENIEL JOSEPH: Certainly. When we think about electoral politics in the South, Jimmy Carter, like Richard said, the last Democrat to carry the South, except for Virginia. By 1992 and 1996, when Bill Clinton won states like West Virginia, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, he was in a three-way race.
What's interesting is that the Obama campaign is trying to make up huge shortfalls. Kerry in 2004 lost North Carolina by over 450,000 votes, lost Georgia by over half a million votes. So the only way to turn this new South from Red to Blue isn't so much as convincing the white working class that Obama can be their champion as injecting millions of new people into the system and into the process, including African-Americans and younger white voters, first-time voters, who really are receptive in the South, even in places like Kentucky and West Virginia, to vote for an African-American candidate.
RAY SUAREZ: Richard, your final thoughts on these two weeks of convention hearing?
RICHARD NORTON-SMITH: Please don't ever schedule two conventions back to back.
RAY SUAREZ: Amen. And Peniel?
PENIEL JOSEPH: I think these are two extraordinary conventions. I think that what the Democrats have tried to do, and I think they did it successfully, is turn that brand in the mind of the public from a party of special interests to a party of universal interests, in technicolor. And the Republicans have really tried to say that they're not just a party of business and corporate interests, but they're the party of patriotism and values, and successfully defending the country against terrorism.
RAY SUAREZ: You've been watching the Insider Forum from the Online NewsHour, a convention wrap-up edition with Peniel Joseph, professor of American and African-American history at Brandeis University, and Richard Norton-Smith, NewsHour regular and scholar-in-residence at George Mason University in Virginia.
I'm Ray Suarez. Thanks for joining us.