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Does Obama Have White Voter “Problem”?

- October 28, 2012

This is a guest post from political scientist Eric Juenke.


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.