Barack Obama’s election as president of the U.S. in 2008 represented a watershed moment in American history – as the son of a black African father and a white American mother, the mixed-race Obama became the first non-white chief executive.
However, while that may seem like progress, keep in mind that since the election of John F. Kennedy (fifty years ago), no Catholic has ascended to the White House. Neither has a woman, or a Jew, or an Asian or a Latino.
This despite waves and waves of massive immigration and changing demographics over the past 125 years.
International Business Times spoke to an expert on politics to discuss one of the largest ethnic groups in the country – Italian-Americans.
The discussion focuses on three dominant Italian-American politicians, all of whom are from New York: Mario Cuomo, the former governor; his son, Andrew, the current governor; and Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City.
Jamie Chandler is a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York.
IBTIMES: Mario Cuomo delivered a rousing keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Thereafter, rumors swirled that he was considering a presidential run, but he never did. Do you think Cuomo ever seriously considered running for the White House?
CHANDLER: Mario Cuomo has had couple of opportunities to campaign for president, and even gain a nomination to the Supreme Court, but he has always demonstrated some reluctance to pursue these goals -- which all have to do with his will not his skill. Presidential candidates are driven in their pursuit of victory; they want the job and can clearly state their reasons why. In past interviews, Cuomo has intimated a fundamental conflict over why he’d run; he’s hasn’t been comfortable saying he’d be doing it to beat the other guy, or push an agenda, or even please his mother.
Cuomo has also been reluctant to embrace opportunities. The 1992 Presidential Campaign was his biggest chance to enter the race -- Democratic Party leaders, fundraisers, and key decision makers where behind him, but he couldn’t commit. And the struggle that he had reaching that decision was apparent in that it came down to the wire. He kept a plane waiting on the tarmac as he decided to fly to New Hampshire to enter the state’s primary. For most presidential candidates, commitment to winning is unquestionable. They may throw their hat in the race late, as Texas Governor Rick Perry has done, but they have an innate hunger for the job. This is the foundation requirement to endure the many challenges of the campaign.
IBTIMES: If Mario Cuomo had run for president, would his chances have been derailed by his strong ethnic identification as a New York Italian Catholic and his extremely liberal views?
CHANDLER: If Mario Cuomo had run, his Italian Catholic background wouldn’t play much, if any, of a role in derailing his campaign. The media might have briefly brought it up as a consideration, but a successful campaign boils down to strategy. The image of Italian Americans has improved greatly since the 1960s. Voters today wouldn’t view this as a barrier. There are several Italian Americans in prominent national positions: [Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security] Janet Napolitano, [Supreme Court Justices] Antonin Scalia, and Samuel Alito -- not to mention New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo.
In fact, it is very likely that we will see an Italian American president in the near future. This is not to say that other ethnic groups wouldn’t face difficulties.
Recent polls have indicated that two-thirds of voters are not ready for an Asian president, and about 50 percent not ready for a Mormon one (a sentiment that continues to pester the campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman). Cuomo’s liberal views, on the other hand, could represent a challenge. Although the current slate of Republican candidates is likely the most conservative to date, being an extreme liberal brings with it a lot of baggage. Since the 1970s, the very term “liberal” has become a handicap for Democratic candidates. Although President Obama was more liberal than Hillary Clinton in the 2008 campaign, he was very cognizant of balancing his liberalism with moderation. And certainly, as president, he has been much more moderate than his supporters expected.
To a much lesser extent, a candidate’s Catholicism may present a challenge, given that there hasn’t been a Catholic President since Kennedy, but this is more likely due to the candidates’ campaign skills rather than his religious background. Republican candidate Rick Santorum [an Italian Catholic] is a good example of this.
IBTIMES: Rudolph Giuliani has flirted with a few presidential runs, but they always failed to get off the ground (he may announce for 2012 as well). What are Giuliani’s major strengths and weaknesses as a national candidate?
CHANDLER: Giuliani's problem has been due to his inability to manage a national campaign. He squandered significant potential in 2008 when he chose to focus solely on winning the Florida primary, rather than building a strong presence in the six preceding primary races.
Giuliani failed to understand how important generating momentum is in winning the presidential nomination. In December of 2008, 41 percent of the voters said they would vote for him if the general election were held then. Giuliani continues to have a positive rating for how he handled the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, but that will bring him a much smaller benefit if he were to run next year than it did in 2008. If he does, he will have to execute a much stronger and different campaign than he had in 2008.
IBTIMES: Giuliani is a Republican who supports gay rights and (I think) abortion. Do these views doom him with social conservatives among the GOP?
CHANDLER: The key influencing factors in the 2012 Republican Primary races – i.e., fundraisers, vote mobilizers, and special interests -- are much more conservative than in past campaigns. Although Giuliani has backed off on a lot of his formerly moderate views, it would be very difficult for him to campaign on conservative stances similar to current front-runners Perry and Michelle Bachman.
The 2012 Republican Primaries will not be friendly to moderate Republicans. Although Mitt Romney continues to be a strong contender, his campaign is continually dealing with questions around his moderate credentials, and he has lost some ground to Perry.
However, Romney benefits from a strong campaign organization with entrenched operations in key primary states.
IBTIMES: Did Giuliani exploit his ‘heroics’ during 9-11 too much and did that turn off a lot of the electorate?
CHANDLER: Giuliani’s 9/11 heroics allowed him to attract voters. He was the most poised of the 2008 Republican candidates to become a front-runner early in the primary season, but he didn’t have the campaign strategy and tactics to translate this 9/11 sentiment to votes. Because of this, Giuliani was unable to attract party leaders and fundraisers who play a much greater role in influencing candidate success in primaries rather than the voters themselves.
IBTIMES: Giuliani is not the first NYC mayor who has had presidential aspirations (John Lindsay and Mike Bloomberg also have). How does being mayor of NYC make one qualified to be president? Isn’t it better to be a governor or senator first? Has anyone ever gone from being mayor to president? It seems like an awfully big jump.
CHANDLER: There have been three former mayors to become president. Andrew Johnson, who was mayor of Greenville, Tenn., Grover Cleveland who was mayor of Buffalo, N.Y. and Calvin Coolidge, who was mayor of Northampton, Mass. However, these presidents served in the 19th and early 20th century, and they’re mayoralties did not immediately proceed their presidencies. It would be much harder for a mayor to win the presidency today than in the past, because the public has higher expectations of a candidate’s past experience. Voters are most impressed by candidates who have executive experience.
More U.S. presidents have been governors than those who held any other type of office. Moreover, aside from 2008, there have only been two sitting Senators who have ever been elected to the presidency, Kennedy in 1960 and Warren G. Harding in 1920. Senators typically have unsuccessful campaigns because they have long, and sometimes contradictory, legislative records which gives their opponents a lot of opportunity to attack.
President George W. Bush (former governor of Texas) was very effective in using Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s voting record to his advantage in the 2004 Presidential campaign by portraying Kerry as a flip-flopper.
IBTIMES: Andrew Cuomo has been talked about as a possible Democratic Presidential candidate in 2016 or perhaps 2020. Assuming he does a good job as NY governor – and that he actually as has interest -- would he be a strong candidate? What are his major strengths and weaknesses?
CHANDLER: Should Andrew Cuomo continue the success of his first year as Governor, he would make a strong candidate in the 2016 or 2020 presidential campaigns. He has thus far demonstrated an ability to work with a split state legislature and cut deals with very difficult Republican state senators.
A need for bipartisanship in Washington will probably persist for next decade, and Cuomo’s ability to work with both parties could be a strong selling-point.
However, Cuomo would face the same challenges that any presidential candidate faces early in his or her campaign, lack of name recognition and an untested campaign organization. If Cuomo is to run in 2016, he will very soon need to begin to build his name on a national level, perhaps by going on the campaign stump for President Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other key primary states.
After next year’s general election, Cuomo must deploy advance teams in these states to begin to attract prominent state party leaders and fundraisers.
IBTIMES: Many Italians in the New York-New Jersey area are socially conservative and many have become Republicans (especially in Staten Island). Thus, would an Italian candidate have a better chance of gaining support of Italian-Americans and also of becoming President if he/she were a Conservative Republican?
CHANDLER: Although Italian-Americans tend to be more conservative and Republican both locally and nationally, it would probably be slightly easier for an Italian-American to run as a Democratic candidate than a Republican. Democrats, in general, are much more likely to say that they’re ready for an African American, Woman, Catholic, Italian American, and even a Mormon President than Republicans. However, the likelihood of success really boils down the individual candidate. Chris Christie, for example, has a lot of potential for a 2016 run. At the same time, another challenge for an Italian American contender is he or she is probably going to come from a coastal state, rather than the mid, south, or southwest. These states represent the core of the Republican Party, and are more much more accepting of candidates from them. Coastal states tend to produce moderate Republicans, which is currently out of fashion in the Republican party.
IBTIMES: Despite being one of the nation’s largest and longest-entrenched ethnic groups, Italians have largely failed to reach the highest rungs of American politics (aside from the Cuomos, Nancy Pelosi, Alphonse D’Amato, and a few others). Moreover, aside from Geraldine Ferraro there has (to the best of my knowledge) never been an Italian on the presidential ticket. Are Italians still stigmatized by the Mafia by much of the American public?
CHANDLER: The voter hesitancy has more to do with Italian Americans’ Catholic background than a stereotypical belief that Italian politicians are connected to the Mafia. It has only been in the last 20 to 30 years where an increasing number of Italian-Americans, outside of serving in Congress, have gained prominent positions in presidential Administrations or become Supreme Court justices, and this has partly been due to changing attitudes toward Catholics.
IBTIMES: Are you surprised that the U.S. elected a mixed-race President (Obama), before electing a woman or an Italian or a Jew?
CHANDLER: Although historically significant, it is not surprising that the country elected a mixed-race president in 2008. President Obama’s election was a convergence of multiple political opportunities: the general public’s antipathy with the Republican Party, a desire for change, Obama’s strong campaign organization, his popularity and charisma, and his strong fundraising skills. Obama’s victory had much more to do with these factors than his mixed-race background.