The Campaign Spot

The Continuing Racial Polarization of the Electorate

I was at a party a few weeks back, and talk turned to the presidential race. One guest, an immigrant from Europe, expressed shock and anger that Barack Obama commanded such an overwhelming lead in the African-American vote, contending that these voters were putting skin color above all other factors. Not terribly eager to push against an intractable position, I responded that in this election and past, we’ve seen many demographic groups vote for the candidate who shares their characteristics– older women voting for Hillary, evangelicals voting for Huckabee, Mormons voting for Romney, veterans voting for McCain — and that this was just more of the same. And voters usually prefer a candidate who is from their geographic location; every candidate usually wins their home state by an overwhelming margin; Illinoisans like Obama, New Yorkers prefer Hillary, Arizonans like McCain, etc. Complaining about voters preferring candidates who share traits with them is like complaining about the weather.

African-Americans are free to vote for whoever they like, obviously. But as the primary stretches on, and it becomes clear that overwhelming and monolithic support among African-Americans is putting Obama over the top, I wonder how other voter demographics will react.
Obama carried 91 percent of the African-American vote in North Carolina and 90 percent of the African-American vote in Indiana. No other demographic was anywhere near so lopsided in their support; the closest were non-college whites who split 71-26 for Hillary in North Carolina; 65-35 for Hillary in Indiana.
(And all of this comes after the Wright mess. Obama stands by Wright in his Philly speech, and African-Americans stand by him. Wright says Obama dealt with the controversy like a politician, and Obama denounces him fully… and it would appear it had no effect on Obama’s support among this demographic.)
Now look at some of the recent analysis of the race:
Thomas Frank, New York Daily News: “With the largest number of remaining delegates now being party insiders, they have to decide if Obama can overcome enough of that antipathy – essentially deciding if enough working-class whites will back away from the black candidate, whether because of the false Muslim rumors, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap or old-fashioned racism.”
Mary Mitchell, Chicago Sun-Times: “For instance, reported on the New York Times blog on Monday was a piece by a reporter who went to a ‘mostly white highly educated, professional . . . politically independent’ area and found voters were ‘unaffected’ by the Wright controversy. But the reporter also found that while supporters of both Clinton and Obama said ‘they did not think the Wright episode should change the race’ they feared it might in other areas where ‘people might be searching for some acceptable explanation for not voting for a black candidate.’ That’s a truth that many will call a lie.”
Al Hunt, Bloomberg News: “There may have been some element of racism among these culturally conservative voters, who support Democrats if they think the politician is strong and empathetic toward their struggles; Obama appeared neither.”
Richard Kim, The Nation: “Are white working-class voters really racist? How many and where? If a significant number of them are, should Democrats really court them on the terms of their racism? These are questions worth asking since, apparently, a lot of Democrats think they’re valid. But as long as the Clinton campaign continues to code the fact that it is counting on a base of white racist support, we’ll never have this conversation.”
African-Americans are voting overwhelmingly for a candidate who shares their skin color, but it’s being repeatedly suggested that white working-class voters are motivated by racism. Is this the “national conversation on race” that Obama had in mind in his Philly speech?

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