Does Obama Have White Voter “Problem”?

by John Sides on October 28, 2012 · 11 comments

in Campaigns and elections

This is a guest post from political scientist Eric Juenke.

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Some polls have found that white support for President Obama has dropped to unprecedentedly low levels, and this topic is getting no end of media attention. Gawker wrote “Gee, White Voters really don’t like Barack Obama. Huh.”

But this misses a central point: Since the mid-1970’s Democrats have had a white voter “problem.” Obama is a Democrat. This is by far the best lens through which to view white support for Obama.  Conversely, it is also the best lens through which to view black support for Obama.  For example, LBJ received essentially the same level of black support in 1964 as did Obama in 2008.

This is not to say that race doesn’t matter or that Obama’s race wasn’t important in 2008.  It might have been.  It’s just to say that party is much more important in understanding Obama’s white racial gap.

A recent Washington Post poll found a 21-point gap in white support between Romney and Obama. But we have to put this one poll in context.  In 2008, Obama garnered about 43% of the white vote. This was the high water mark for Democratic presidential candidates since Jimmy Carter in 1976 – not coincidentally about the time in which party polarization starts to take hold in the U.S.  Put differently, Obama received as much or more white voter support than Kerry, Gore, Dukakis, Mondale, Carter (1980), and even Bill Clinton (see the data here or see the historical chart in the Post piece here).

What about the white voter “gap?” From CNN’s article yesterday, “Obama in 08 became the first presidential candidate ever to lose whites by double digits and win,” suggesting Obama has a particular white voter problem separate from white Democratic candidates. First, this is not true.  Clinton’s white voter gap in 1992 (including Perot supporters) was 21 points. In1996? 14 points. Second, Obama is the only other Democrat besides Clinton to win a national election since 1976. How did the Democratic losers do? Kerry’s gap was about 17 points. Gore’s gap was around 12 points. Obama’s gap in 2008? 12 points

Even in the South the data do not back up the white voter bias claim. Relative to Kerry, Obama did a little worse in some Southern states (Alabama, for example), but a little better or equally well in others (Georgia and North Carolina, for example).

What about the polls in 2012? Here is the Romney/Obama white voter gap in June: Gallup, 16-17 points; CNN, 14; Fox News, 16; Ipsos-Reuters, 15; Pew, 13. These are all in line with the historical pattern for Democrats. In October, as the race tightened, the gap widened, but has still been very much in line with past Democratic performance: IBD/TIPP, 15 points; ABC/WaPo, 21 (two weeks before it was 11 points), Fox News, 19; Pew, 21; CBS, 14.

Has Obama’s white support gone down since 2008?  Probably. But does he have a white voter “problem?” Probably not. Even if he does, it is not an Obama problem. It has more to do with the fact that he is a Democratic incumbent running during a struggling economy.

So how should we think about race and the 2012 election?

  • Obama is likely get between 38% and 43% of the national white vote.

  • This will fit within the historical pattern of Democrats since 1976.

  • Racial attitudes are already baked into the partisan cake, thus racial bigots on the left and right made their partisan choices a long time ago and will dance with whoever brought them to the party on Election Day.

  • Obama’s white voter problem is the Democrat’s white voter problem. Indeed, he has performed better with this group than any national Democrat since the era of party polarization began.

 

{ 11 comments }

Augie Ruckdeschel October 28, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Hi Eric,
Glad to see you’re posting on the Monkey Cage. It’s the best political science blog out there! Hope all is well!

Kylopod October 28, 2012 at 3:44 pm

>Relative to Kerry, Obama did a little worse in some Southern states (Alabama, for example), but a little better or equally well in others (Georgia and North Carolina, for example).

Are you saying Obama did better than Kerry among white voters in those states, or better among all voters in those states? High black voter turnout probably helped Obama in some Southern states.

Ian McDonald October 28, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Three takes on Eric’s post:

1. The partisan racial gap isn’t new or peculiar to Obama, but you must admit: it is astonishing. Maybe it’s premature to attribute this year’s version of the gap to Obama’s ethnicity, but it’s helpful to see the gap receive some media attention.

2. It’s strange that the gap seems so resistant to forces that might have weakened it, over the course of fifty years. Generational forces, if nothing else. Or the GOP rightward drift.

3. This research doesn’t contradict Eric’s point, but Obama seems to pay a price as an African American candidate among some white voters. http://jackman.stanford.edu/papers/download.php?i=0
http://goo.gl/2tkBc

Eric Juenke October 28, 2012 at 11:11 pm

I have to prep class for tomorrow, but I wanted to offer brief responses until I have a little more time. Augie. Good to hear from you. Send me an email and let me know how you are doing. Thanks for the comment. Kylopol, these are white voter comparisons. Let’s see if this table makes it in here…

% White vote for each candidate
AL AR FL GA LA KY MS NC OK SC TN TX VA
KERRY 2004 20 36 42 23 24 35 14 27 29 22 34 25 32
OBAMA 2008 10 30 42 23 14 36 11 35 29 26 34 25 40
Obama GAP -10 -6 0 0 -10 +1 -3 +8 0 +4 0 0 +8
Source: State sub-samples of national exit polls

Ian. It is good to see people talk about race and politics. It’s our job to make sure they do so with as much information and perspective as possible. I have seen one of the pieces you linked to but not the Jackman/Vavreck piece. It looks to be in line with much of the other good work done on the 2008 election (and just as creative, thanks for the link). In short, these findings and my post are not mutually exclusive (as you note). My point was not that race doesn’t matter, but that it matters far far less than people in the public and media think it does. I do have some issues with some of this 2008-related research, but even if they are 100% correct about the Obama-only effects, it pales in comparison to the number of other voters who use party/economy/etc. to override their racial biases. I will note that Lewis-Beck and Tien estimate that Obama should have won about 58% of the two-party vote, and that the gap can be attributed to his race. These folks are both much smarter than I am, but 58% would be a much (much) larger share of the two-party vote than any Democrat since LBJ in 1964. Which Democrat has the second-highest % of the two-party vote since 1948? Barack Obama. And it isn’t even close. Thank you for the comments.

LFC October 29, 2012 at 9:53 am

Interesting post.
One obvious implication is that as whites become an ever smaller share of the U.S. population — and, presumably, an ever smaller share of the U.S. electorate — the Democrats will benefit, at least in presidential elections. Which on balance is probably a good thing, given the moral bankruptcy and the willful stupidity of most (though not all) national Republican politicians.

ChevalierdeJohnstone October 30, 2012 at 3:30 pm

You are missing a variable. Obama consistently does well among single white women. Obama does less well among single white men, badly among married white women, and worst among married white men.

Removing the whiteness restriction, in general across all ethnic groupings, Obama does better among single women than among men or married women. As noted by the OP, this is also true of Democrats generally.

For interactive effects, consider that Northern European ethnic whites have, historically, the highest rate of absolute nuclear family formation as a proportion of total family formation. Thus historically “traditional marriage” is most prevalent among whites.

facts November 1, 2012 at 5:59 am

GEE IT COULDN’T JUST BE, WHITE FOLKS ARE TIRED OF HIS OVERT RACIST ASS, AND THE BLACK ON WHITE CRIME MYSTERIOUSLY ELEVATED SINCE HE TOOK OFFICE, OR THE FACT HE HAD A CAMPAIGN WITH THE BLACK PANTHERS, OPENLY ALLOWING THEM TO THREATEN WHITE FOLKS, AFTER THEY VOTED HIM IN OFFICE, NOW COULD IT?? WHITE FOLKS GAVE HIM THE JOB, THEN HE KICKED THEM IN THE TEETH, ROLLED OVER THEM IN HIS BUS, AND SENT HIS BLACK THUGS DOOR TO DOOR TO BEAT US DOWN OFF OF OUR OWN PORCHES.. THEN AFTER, HOLDER SENT US ALL THE MEMO, WHITE FOLKS REPORTING BLACK CRIME ON THEMSELVES, UH, NOBODY HOME YO. CAMPAIGN AGAINST WHITEY 2013? HELL NO. HE DRAGGED THE COUNTRY BACK TO THE 50s.. FORWARD?? THAT MAN NEEDS A SENSE OF DIRECTION, DON’T HE? HE HAS DIVIDED US STRAIGHT DOWN TO OUR OWN FAMILY MEMBERS OF ALL COLORS!!! SCREW HIM, AND HIS BACKWARDS ASS.

facts November 1, 2012 at 6:02 am

DEMS WERE KKK MEMBERS, YOU BLACK FOLKS NEED A HISTORY BOOK!!!

facts November 1, 2012 at 6:08 am

IT WASN’T ABOUT COLOR, [ OR HE WOULD OF NEVER WON IN 08!!] TIL ** HE MADE IT ABOUT COLOR, TO INTENTIONALLY DIVIDE OUR FAMILIES, OUR FRIENDS, AND OUR COUNTRY. ADMIT IT!!! STOP DENYING IT. BLACK FOLKS HAVE MANY GREAT LEADERS, HE IS AN EMBARRASSMENT TO ALL OF US. GET OVER IT, WE HAD 40 SOME WHITE FAILURES OURSELVES. HE MADE US ***ALL SLAVES.

aamom November 1, 2012 at 6:17 am

LOL this lil ole black lady ain’t convinced. Romney’s whole tactic has been to run up the “white score” and it looks like he’s winning even in the battleground states. YES! I believe Obama will still win but the injection of racial politics still works in the USA.

Truth November 1, 2012 at 7:42 am

“Facts” is a moron and a racist. Probably a toothless fundamentalist Christian, too.

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