Election 2012: An Electorate Divided by Race


The role of race in President Obama’s re-election is difficult to pin down, political analysts say, although national exit polls suggest a divided electorate.

“Race is a factor, but it was a complicated series of factors that he had to use to get to this victory,” said Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor of political science and Africana studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

The president was able to retain among his core of support the embrace of women (55-44 percent voted for Obama over Romney) and 18-29-year olds (60-37 percent preferred Obama). But, arguably, it was racial/ethnic demography that won the day for Obama.

According to the 2010 Census, not only is the percentage of non-Whites in the U.S. population increasing, but minorities mostly accounted for the surge in voters in 2008 and were expected to match that turnout this year. In the 2008 presidential election, there were 5 million more voters, comprising 2 million Blacks, 2 million Hispanics and 600,000 Asians, while the percentage of White voters remained statistically unchanged.

“The White population is getting smaller while the so-called minority groups are getting larger especially in swing states and that allowed for the Democratic Party to put together a strategy that made it harder for them to lose,” Pinderhughes said. “The Obama campaign built as broad a base as possible across the country and built an electoral coalition that took the very multicultural population into account and didn’t prioritize any one group.”

That approach seemed to gain Obama overwhelming support from African Americans, Hispanics and Asians, who exceeded turnout expectations and returned him to the White House.

According to exit polls, Obama garnered 93 percent of the Black vote (13 percent of voters), 71 percent of the Latino vote (10 percent of voters) and 74 percent of the Asian-American vote.

“In Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio…it was very clear that the Black community was the deciding factor in the outcome,” said Benjamin Jealous, president/CEO of the NAACP. “People kept telling us how unenthusiastic we were but we knew better. The Black community was decisive and we turned out in every place that mattered.”

That impressive turnout—among Blacks and other minorities—was to some degree influenced by adverse race relations, political analysts said.

“There was a very racialized climate around Obama’s 2008 candidacy that bled into his presidency,” said Robert Smith, professor of political science at San Francisco State University. So, Black voters were impelled by “this sense of racial solidarity, of rallying behind a ‘brotha’ who is under attack.”

For Hispanics, racism played a role, too. “The Republicans have been so persistent about driving minorities away, talking in racist ways about minorities or speaking in hostility about the issues that concern them such as immigration,” Pinderhughes said.

Pre-election polls showed that racist attitudes toward African Americans and Hispanics had increased during President Obama’s first term and signalled a resentment among Whites that could cost him White votes. That prediction seemed to be borne out in the exit polls. Obama did less well among White voters, winning only 39 percent compared to Mitt Romney’s 59 percent support among that group. But that’s not necessarily a sign of degenerating race relations, Jealous said.

“When I think about the country I was born in 40 percent of Whites voting for a Black president is not insignificant,” the civil rights leader said. He added, “I think the racial divide that may have had an impact in this election is simultaneously fading in the mirror.”

Jealous pointed to increased cooperation between minority groups—who have also had to fight issues of racism and mistrust—and the fact that they voted according to their political interests and not just the candidates’ racial identities.

“Latino, Black and Asian voters are finding new places of power in our society and are understanding that they need to be more prepared to negotiate not only with the White power structure, but also with each other,” he said.

In fact, minority voters displayed a level of sophistication at the polls, basing their decisions on the candidates—and their parties’—platforms and accomplishments.

“There was also a sense among Blacks that Obama did a reasonably good job under difficult circumstances,” Smith, the California-based analyst, said.

Obama’s health care reform bill, the economic stimulus, the auto industry bailout, Wall Street financial industry reform, education initiatives, reduction in the disparity of criminal justice penalties between Blacks and White and the Obama administration’s civil rights policies all benefitted the Black community in ways that were not likely under a Republican president, political analysts agreed.

Similar considerations influenced Hispanic voters. Though President Obama did not keep his 2008 campaign promise to pursue immigration reform—and in fact his administration oversaw a significant number of deportations—he redeemed himself with his support of the Dream Act. And, ultimately, he seemed to be the better choice given the rampant anti-Hispanic sentiments within the increasingly insular GOP.

“Latinos were disillusioned with Obama but absolutely terrified of a Mitt Romney,” said {CNN} contributor Ana Navarro. Pinderhughes, the Notre Dame professor, elaborated: “The policies that Mitt Romney and the Republican Party of this era have pursued do not reflect the full complexity of American life and a look at the (GOP’s election night) crowd in Boston confirmed that. It was a very homogenous crowd.
“[But] you can’t govern by White-majority rule.”

Overall, voters’ interests seemed to overshadow race in their choice. For many voters, it came down to the candidate whom they felt best represented them.

According to exit polls, voters continued to blame the Bush administration for their economic woes—their top concern—and rejected Romney’s prescription which mirrored Bush’s failed approach of tax cuts and looser government regulation.

Additionally, voters—of all races—seemed unable to believe that Romney is committed to them. According to an Associated Press exit poll, 54 percent of voters felt the Republican candidate would favor the rich, only 34 percent thought his policies would do more for middle-class America and virtually zero percent thought Romney would aid the poor.

Conversely, 75 percent of voters said Obama's policies favored the middle class or the poor.

“Obama’s campaign did a good job of portraying Romney as a wealthy businessman intent on avoiding taxes and ignoring the middle class and the poor. And Romney was not able to overcome that portrayal,” Smith said.

Election 2012: An Electorate Divided by Race

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