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Tuesday, October 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Subdividing Americans into political-interest groups

A friend recently turned to me and said, if President Bush is re-elected, she and her family may leave the country to escape a feared draft and the anticipated consequences of a long war.

My friend may be suffering from a case of paranoia brought on by too much interest in the elections. But she isn't alone.

Whether fueled by reality or the imagination, fear, anger and anxiety are the emotional triumvirate guiding our election choices next week. Just as disturbing is how neatly segmented these fear-inspiring political messages have become.

Bush trolls for votes on Spanish-language Telemundo. John Kerry gets Bill Clinton to establish him with African Americans in Philadelphia. Former Vice President Al Gore tells black congregations in Florida to turn their anger over his disputed 2000 defeat into political action.

Divvying up America into political-interest groups is a long-held tradition. The name of the game is to segment the populace and fashion messages to win coalitions. We saw it in the early elections of our history with Protestants, then the Irish, Catholics, women, farmers versus non-farmers — and the subdividing of America goes on.

It is interesting business, considering Bush ran in 2000 contrasting himself as a uniter and his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, as a divider. Coming from Texas, Bush told the country he was used to working across party lines and practicing racial inclusion.

What a difference four years make. Both campaigns spend their days on the road highlighting our differences rather than our common interests. Is this politics or signs of a disturbing trend?

Luis Fraga, associate professor of political science at Stanford University, votes for the latter. He says presidential campaigns are sending out messages far more divisive than in the past. This in turn could exacerbate divisions in Congress and other parts of government.

"When we focus so much on what divides us, the threat is that we lose a sense of common interest or linked fate," Fraga says.

For sure, campaigns want to win and divisive politics could hold winning combinations. Asians, African-Americans and Hispanics have set records in voter registration. Record turnout is expected among union members. And a record number of citizens are voting early this time. Each subgroup is a constituency ripe for exploitation.

And the mathematical divisions go on. The number of eligible Latino voters is rising. In 2000, 14.3 million Latinos were eligible to vote. According to the U.S. Census, that number is projected to rise to 16 million by next week, making Latinos 7 percent of the electorate.

Still a small percentage when compared with African Americans? Yes, but African Americans tend to vote solidly with Democrats. Latinos are wild cards, with Cubans leaning Republican and groups like Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans leaning Democratic. Plus, the Latino vote is concentrated in a handful of big states such as Texas, Florida, California and New York, which represent 144 of the total 538 Electoral College votes.

To Democrats and Republicans, Asians are a highly coveted group. Vietnamese may be swayed by the anti-communist rhetoric often heard in GOP camps. But Democrats think they've won over Filipinos, Chinese and other Asian groups concerned about the economy and health care.

Native Americans are part of the calculus. They represent only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population but in 2002 they helped elect a Democratic governor in Arizona and a South Dakota senator. The nonpartisan Native Vote in 2004 is expected to turn out record numbers of Native-American voters.

Michigan's 17 electoral votes are supposedly in the hands of African-American, Arab-American and Latino voters. The same goes for Florida's 27 electoral votes, although the deciding hands in that state belong to Americans with Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Nicaraguan and Colombian ancestry.

Vice President Dick Cheney's gay daughter notwithstanding, the votes of lesbians and gays are up for grabs. The Log Cabin Republicans, the largest gay Republican group, aren't permitted by their bylaws to endorse a Democrat but they still made their displeasure with Bush known by issuing a non-endorsement in the presidential race. But another gay Republican group, which counts among its members Cheney's daughter Mary, backs Bush.

The name of the game is winning, but we just might tuck ourselves in a week from today and wake up the next morning to a seared political landscape. Heaven help the leader charged with fashioning a sense of national unity out of heightened tensions and suspicions.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com. Look for more of her thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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