Race in the presidential race | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, November 03, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 03, 2012

Race in the presidential race

If potus [Barack Obama] had been a Republican -- or, perhaps, merely an old white guy -- he'd be on Mount Rushmore by now for saving the economy, killing bin Laden, ending the Iraq War, rescuing the auto industry, securing fair pay for women, and giving all Americans access to affordable, high-quality private health insurance." This was the feeling expressed by an individual commenting on a news item on the CNN website.
The continuing importance of race as an issue in this election was underscored when John Sununu, a surrogate of Romney, insisted that Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama is based on "race." CNN analysts are currently asking: "Could Obama's struggles with white voters cost him the election?" It is reported that "with 59% support among whites, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is hitting record numbers among that group. He is approaching a margin of support last seen by Republican Ronald Reagan in his 1984 re-election."
A politico/George Washington University Battleground Tracking Poll has Romney ahead of President Barack Obama among white voters by 18 points, 57% to 39%. Gallup showed Romney ahead among whites by 20-plus points this month. A Washington Post-ABC News Tracking poll released on October 26 showed a similarly large spread between the GOP nominee and Obama at 21 percentage points. The Washington Post reported this to be the lowest level of support for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1988, when Michael Dukakis received 40% of the white vote against then Vice President George H.W. Bush. Bill Clinton came in slightly lower than that in 1992, at 39% of the white vote in a three-way race featuring Bush and Ross Perot (according to the Roper Center). But Clinton was in a three-way race where the third candidate had made some inroads among/with mainstream voters. In 2008, Obama trailed John McCain among white voters by just 12 points.
This divide between caucasian and minority voters is not new, but is alarming on two counts: racial prejudice is up and the first black president is facing an uphill battle where his race is being touted as an issue by his opponent. AP reports that racial prejudice has increased in the US slightly since 2008. "In all, 51% of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48% in a similar 2008 survey. When measured by an implicit racial attitudes test, the number of Americans with anti-black sentiments jumped to 56%, up from 49% during the last presidential election," reveals a report by AP. This is based on surveys conducted with researchers from Stanford University, the University of Michigan and NORC at the University of Chicago.
There is another side to the ongoing race and election issue; while Obama's "white voters" problem is receiving huge press coverage, very few are taking the trouble to point out that Romney is doing very poorly among black and Hispanic communities. The support for Romney among minorities has yet to cross the 20% mark. Among black voters, He has less than 4% support. His support among the Hispanic community is about 35%, far higher than his appeal to the black community.
It is worth pointing out that the share of white voters has declined in recent elections. In 1980, when Reagan first won the presidency, 89% of the electorate was white. In 1992, 87% of voters were white; in 2000, 81% were caucasian; and by 2008 the white share of the votes had fallen to 74%. As the 2012 election is increasingly focusing on swing states, it will be useful to examine the voter situation in one of them -- Ohio. President Obama won 46% of the white votes in Ohio in 2008 when he carried the state by five points. It has been argued that "Romney probably needs to hold Mr. Obama to less than 40% of the white votes if he is to win Ohio."
If the issue of race, particularly support among caucasian voters, is giving Romney some hope, the Obama camp is taking comfort in the fact that the nonwhite eligible voter populations in battleground states have increased between November 2008 and May 2012. According to William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a highly respected demographer, the rates of growth of the nonwhite voter population in four states are as follows: Nevada, up 9%; North Carolina, up 4%; Florida, up 4%, and Colorado, up 3%. The white share of the eligible voting population has declined in all those states.
Whether 2012 will turn out to be the most racially polarised presidential election in recent history is something we will soon find out. If Obama secures victory with a historically low level of support from white voters, will that have any impact on the future course of American politics? It is a question we may have to ponder. But, in the meantime, both candidates are hoping that the race issue will be key to ensuring victory.

The writer is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA.

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