Rudy Giuliani's supporters call him "America's Mayor." But he is something more: the first serious presidential candidate in history with a vowel at the end of his name.
Oddly, so far in this year of ethnic — and gender — identity politics, Rudy's Italian-American heritage hasn't been much of an issue. Much more attention has gone to Hillary's "favorite daughter" campaign, Barack Obama's quest for African-American authenticity, Bill Richardson self-depiction as the first Hispanic candidate and the Mormon beliefs of Mitt Romney.
Almost nobody has focused on Rudy as the Italian Stallion. Yet.
"Italian-Americans aren't usually thought of as an electoral bloc," says Dr. Diane Heith, a political scientist as St. John's University. "They aren't even polled separately."
Nobody even knows how many Italian-Americans there are. The 2000 census reported almost 16 million, making them the fourth largest white ethnic group — and the only one that experienced growth in the last decade. The National Italian American Foundation puts the number at 25 million, close to 10 percent of the population. Either way, it is possible that there are more Italian-American voters than either blacks or Hispanics.
Not only that, Italian-Americans are strategically located. In four states — New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut — they make up more than 15 percent of the population. They are also heavily concentrated in the key swing states of Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Florida and California. These are mostly Democratic states; the Republicans haven't had a candidate who could challenge in all of them since Ronald Reagan.
But would Italian-American independents (or Democrats) vote for Giuliani out of ethnic pride or solidarity? In the absence of polling data, there are informed guesses.
"Once Italians voted Democratic," says John Salamone, executive director of the NIAF, a non-partisan umbrella group based in D.C. "In recent elections, they have tended to split along the lines of the national divide — about one third Democratic, one third Republican and one third independent. We're a very assimilated community."
Still, this is the first time Italian-Americans have had a national candidate to support. As Giuliani's candidacy has begun to take off, Salamone has been surprised by a growing grass-roots enthusiasm. "Every day I get calls and emails from across the country, from Republicans and Democrats. This isn't an endorsement, but I do believe it will translate into votes."
Votes, and also money. Tribal giving is an American political tradition that has benefited ethnic candidates such as John F. Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Joe Lieberman. There is no reason that Giuliani shouldn't get the same benefit. The finance chairman of his political action committee, Solutions America, is Ken Langone, a self-made billionaire from Queens.
So far, negative media coverage of Giuliani has centered on his bad temper and Manhattan metrosexuality. But a recent cover story in Newsweek pointed in a new direction. The article pointed out that Giuliani had been married to his second cousin. More damning, his father did time in prison for burglary and, after getting released, worked for a brother-in-law who was a Brooklyn loan shark.
"They try this every time," says Salamone. "They even tried to paint Justice Samuel Alito as a guy who might be soft on organized crime, just because he's an Italian from New Jersey. You want to fire up and embolden the community, try using the Soprano card that way."
Dona De Sanctis, deputy executive director of the Order Sons of Italy in America, agrees. "Our people are like other Americans, concerned about the direction of the country," she says. "But one thing we carry with us here, even after 100 years in America, is the need to feel we are respected. If Rudy Giuliani is disrespected, it will galvanize Italian-Americans across the country. I can tell you that the Sons of Italy would be deeply upset."
So far, Italian-Americans themselves don't know what to make of Giuliani's candidacy. Some won't see it connected to them in any way. Others will be moved — and, perhaps, find themselves surprised to be moved — by the chance to vote for one of their own.
"There will definitely be an Italian-American factor in this election," says Salamone. How big it is depends upon how Giuliani runs, and how his rivals run against him. Like the campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Bill Richardson and Mitt Romney, the Giuliani candidacy is going to tell us things we don't really know about the real state of American political and cultural diversity.