Identity Politics: Yes, Racial Divides Gave Obama the Win

As the young trail-blazing Democratic president began his re-election campaign, a leading columnist at the New York Times wrote:

There is a vague feeling of doubt and disappointment about the president’s first term. … He has touched the intellect of the country, but not its heart. He has informed but not inspired the nation. He is the most popular figure, but he has been lucky in his competition.

He has the headlines. He is on television more than his opponents combined. … Accordingly, his problem is probably not how to get elected but how to govern … he is simply better known than anybody else, and this will probably be enough to assure his re-election, but it is a far cry from the atmosphere he promised when he ran for the presidency.


That wasn’t Paul Krugman writing in 2012; that was James Reston describing President John Kennedy’s prospects on November 15, 1963 — a week before JFK was assassinated.

But the current generation of Democrats should heed Reston’s caution: while President Obama may have won an undeniably great come-from-behind victory, it was also undeniably an extremely narrow one. A flip of one point would have swung the national popular vote to Mitt Romney, and that same one-point shift in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado would have given Romney 272 votes in the Electoral College.

President Obama may go down as the luckiest candidate in American history, as he was twice rescued by outside events. In early September of 2008, John McCain had surged to a five-point lead in the Gallup poll after a successful Republican National Convention. Two weeks later, the stock market crashed, and Obama went ahead by four points in the Gallup poll on the way to a 53-46% win.

In mid-October of 2012, after Romney performed well in the first debate, he had a seven-point lead (52-45%) in the Gallup poll. (Romney also gained in the key battleground states of Florida and Ohio after the first debate). Then, Hurricane Sandy pounded the Atlantic Coast, turning the president into an “above-the-fray” national unifier and chief executive. By the final weekend, Obama had moved slightly ahead in the Gallup poll of all registered voters, while 68% of Americans approved of his response to the storm. The ultimate “October Surprise” unleashed by nature perhaps saved his job.


In all but three states — storm-tossed New Jersey, Louisiana (the second highest percentage of black voters), and Alaska (no Sarah Palin on the GOP ticket) — the president got a lower percentage of the vote, just as he did nationally. Beyond a very narrow mandate (the president won at least four million fewer voters and two states less than in 2008), the Obama administration faces numerous problems that could derail a second term quickly: not enough jobs, massive debt, a perpetually volatile Middle East, a banking system and stock market that could crash at any time, a still-burgeoning European debt crisis, and rising energy prices. Other than that, everything is fine.

Whatever the impact of Sandy, ethnic voting played a huge factor in the outcome of this campaign. Obama won despite receiving the lowest share of the white vote for any victorious candidate of any party in a two-way race.  His 39% share of white voters was lower than the 42% of Mike Dukakis in 1988, when he lost 40 states. (Bill Clinton only got 36% of the white vote in 1992, but that was in a multi-candidate race).

Obama also got record lows of support for a winning Democrat in a two-way race among white Christians (less than 35%), white Catholics (40%), white Southerners (less than 30%!), rural voters (39%), white “born-again” Christians (less than 20!), and Jews (less than 70%). Not surprisingly, Romney set a record among Mormons (nearly 90%).


So despite these losses, how did Obama win? With a record urban minority turnout. For the second national election in a row, black turnout equaled white turnout, and Hispanics continue to set new records. (Hispanics were 8% of all voters in 2008, 10% in 2012). Obama won almost 100% of the tallies in urban black precincts and over 70% of Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans. Obama’s support among gays went up by at least five points.

In two elections in a row, Obama has received over 15 million black votes, compared to just nine million for Clinton 20 years ago. In 2012, Obama received nine million Hispanic votes, compared to just 3.5 million for Clinton 20 years ago. The nation’s two largest minorities gave Obama a lead of roughly 20 million votes. That was too big a hole for Romney to dig out of, but he almost did it by winning an 18 million vote plurality among white voters.

Simply put, a massive minority turnout saved President Obama. (Kudos to his precinct captains for the best Democratic get-out-the-vote drive since 1960.)

Speaking of Hispanics: If Romney had matched the 38-40% of Hispanics won by Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush in their successful re-election efforts, he would have narrowly won the national popular vote — and carried Florida and Colorado.


Obama won about the same share of the black vote, and scored a 10-point gain with Asians and four points with Hispanics — but dropped three points nationally among whites.

Obama also turned in the best Democratic performance in cities (over 70%) after FDR in 1936, who won close to 80% of the big city vote. His huge margins in Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit helped him carry the crucial industrial states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.  Perhaps the auto bailout helped make the difference there.

But probably the biggest story of 2012 is the dramatic ethnic shift in the electorate. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan pummeled Jimmy Carter in a 44-state landslide, the racial/ethnic breakdown of the voters was 10% black, 2% Hispanic, and 88% white. This year, the voters were 13% black, 10% Hispanic, 3% Asian, 2% “Mixed/Other” — while white voters were down to 72%. In his two big wins, Mr. Reagan averaged 60% among whites, 10% of blacks, 35% of Hispanics, and 60% of Asians. Plugging those averages into the America of 2012 would turn the Reagan landslides of the 1980s into barely 50% of the national popular vote.

So Republicans will need to take note of this ethnic shift. The disappointing Romney showing among Hispanics and Asians can be directly tied to the immigrant-bashing of some within the GOP. But this problem can quickly be solved by supporting a compromise immigration bill like the one President Reagan signed in 1986, and by putting a popular Hispanic like Marco Rubio on the Republican ticket in 2016 or 2020. Boosting the Republican share of the Hispanic vote back to the 2004 level of George W. Bush would essentially even out the national popular vote and help Republicans in crucial swing states like Florida, Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada.


The bad news for Republicans is that they’ve lost twice to Obama. The good news is that they won’t have to face him again due to term limits, and unless Michelle Obama goes on the ticket in 2016, no other Democrat is likely to ignite such a massive black turnout. The other good news is that Romney’s two-point national defeat is not that hard to overcome in historic terms: more than half the time since the Republican/Democrat two-party competition began in 1856, the losing party has gained at least a few points of the national vote in the next election.

With voters usually wanting a change after eight years, and without having to face an incumbent president with proven “urban ethnic” appeal in 2016, the Republicans could do just fine. This may have been a thrilling victory for Democrats, but the GOP should not get complacent given the president’s narrow majority and the magnitude of our national problems. A lot can happen in four years.

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