By Bill Boyarsky
As was the case in 2008, the racial divide in American society is a huge obstacle to President Barack Obama’s chances of electoral victory in 2012. He overcame it last time, but now the economy has made his task much more difficult.
Four years ago, as the country plunged into recession, Obama won 43 percent of the white vote, which helped him to his win over John McCain, roughly 53 to 46 percent overall. Supporters cheered—some wept—at signs of a new racial harmony, ignoring the fact that many white voters didn’t see it that way.
I was glad he won—still am, as a matter of fact. But my years as a reporter covering streets and schools where many races come together, often in an unfriendly manner, told me this was no new era.
Many words have been lavished on the brilliance of Obama’s campaign, but it’s clear he probably would have lost without the recession.
The recession began in December 2007. Obama was then dazzling Iowa Democrats with his vague message of hope, mixed with an equally vague critique of the Iraq War. However, during the January 2008 primary campaign in New Hampshire, a state more typical of the rest of the country, voters showed strong signs of worrying about an economy starting to falter. Hillary Clinton reflected such concern in hard-edged, detailed speeches. She upset Obama in that state’s primary.
Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on Sept. 15, 2008, and the economy collapsed just as the fall campaign began. Obama, by then focusing his message on the economy, won. McCain, who represented the incumbent party and had been running on his national security experience, didn’t have a chance.
This was an aberration rather than a trend. The racial divide remains, as shown in scholarly research on the phenomenon of racially polarized voting, in which members of ethnic groups strongly tend to vote for their own.
The research was for a current reapportionment dispute in racially diverse Southern California involving the question of whether a county supervisorial district should have a Latino majority to meet the requirements of the Voting Rights Act. In exploring that angle, professor Matt A. Barreto of the University of Washington examined the results of several congressional, legislative and local elections in areas where there is a substantial white and Latino population. “Non-Latinos tend to vote against Latino candidates in all reaches of Los Angeles County, while Latinos vote strongly in favor,” he said. In another study, Barreto and two other researchers found that “non-Latinos continue to systematically vote against Latino candidates and that Latino voters demonstrate very high rates of racial bloc voting in favor of co-ethnic candidates.”
Such polarized voting is evident in elections involving whites and African-Americans as well.
An Associated Press-GfK poll last month showed that only 36 percent of whites now approve of the job Obama has been doing, down from 56 percent in the first three months of his term. “In 2008, Obama won the backing of most whites in the Northeast and was competitive in the Midwest and West, outperforming the previous two Democratic nominees,” the pollsters said. “Now majorities of whites in every region but the Northeast say he deserves to lose in 2012 and is not a strong leader.”
Obama seems aware of the role the bad economy will play in his re-election campaign. He discussed it frankly in an interview for White House correspondent Kenneth T. Walsh’s 2010 book “Family of Freedoms: Presidents and African Americans in the White House.” He told Walsh, who reports for U.S. News & World Report, “If I succeed, the economy will have been growing, and our history indicates that when the economy is growing and people feel good about their prospects, social tensions diminish. I’ve always been of the view that if you close the gap in the economic status of African-Americans relative to the general population, that would do more than any race commission or explicit race based strategy to reduce tensions.”
Since that interview, the economy has become worse. That was clear in the recent Census Bureau report that more people are living under the poverty line now than at any other time in more than half a century. Last year, the bureau said, 2.6 million more people joined the ranks of the officially impoverished. In addition, the incomes of households in the middle fell 7.1 percent below their 1999 height.
Income dropped across the population except among the wealthiest. The gap separating whites from lower-earning African-Americans and Hispanics widened. That chills Obama’s hopes that a growing economy will ease social tensions.
Unfortunately for him, he now owns this bad economy. Elected by attacking the economic failures of President George W. Bush and other Republicans, he now must defend himself for not doing enough about it. That’s not a racial issue. If Obama were white, he would still be shouldering the blame. But the fact that he is not white makes his task much more difficult, given white voters’ tendency to vote against black and Latino candidates.
He’s fighting back. No more of the remote Obama. “We’re in a national emergency ... and instead of getting folks to rise up above partisanship in a spirit that says we’re all in this together you’ve got folks who are purposely dividing,” he told 9,300 people who packed an arena in Raleigh, N.C., last Wednesday. He should be saying this all over the country. Maybe it will be enough to help him overcome the obstacle that threatens his presidency.
AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais