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Can Obama Really Win The White Vote?
Predicting the winners of Presidential primary campaigns is a mug's game. You can do detailed analyses of name awareness, issues, demographics, and personalities. But eventually momentum or just plain luck take over and sweep one candidate to victory for no particular reason.
For example, John McCain appears to have a lock on the Republican nomination due to flukish good fortune in narrowly winning the winner-take-all states. Political scientist John Sides calculates that if the GOP contests awarded delegates proportionally, as the Democrats tend to do, McCain would have only a seven-delegate lead over Mitt Romney, with Mike Huckabee within striking distance, and Ron Paul having a realistic shot at being a key powerbroker at the Convention.
Other times, however, momentum fails to kick in. Hillary Clinton, for example, assumed she would win the Democratic nomination because (follow me closely here) the first voters would vote for her because they assumed that everybody else after them would vote for her. And then the subsequent voters would assume that they should vote for her because the first voters voted for her. Momentum (or, more precisely, what physicists call inertia) would conquer all.
It was as simple and foolproof a plan as HillaryCare!
In 2008, though, momentum has been relatively slow to take hold, allowing more fundamental forces time to work.
"The bitterness of the fight for the Democratic nomination is, on the face of it, bizarre… Why, then, is there so much venom out there? …Most of the venom I see is coming from supporters of Mr. Obama, who want their hero or nobody." [Hate Springs Eternal February 11, 2008]
Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center explained in the New York Times blog:
"In the Democratic primaries, race, class, gender, age and party identification continued to be the most important factor in determining a voter's support."[Patterns of Distinction, February 7, 2008]
In other words, the Democrats are separated not by principle, but by identity—over whose people will get to run the upcoming bigger government.
As it happens, new Pew Research Center study (for the full PDF of U.S. Population Projections 2005-2050, click here) suggests that, through government policy, America is well on its way to importing a Third World majority population of its own. Assuming a slightly lower immigration rate than we've seen over the last 20 years, the Hispanic population, according to Pew, will triple in the 45 years from 2005 until 2050.
The population projections are quite staggering. Here they are in millions:
Mr. Obama was badly trailing Mrs. Clinton among blacks in the polls until quite recently. When it counts, though, they've rallied to their racial standard-bearer, casting about 80 percent of their votes in the Democratic primaries for him. When the crunch came, blacks suddenly decided that the Clintons were racist for, well, for standing in the way of Obama.
I must say, it couldn't have happened to a nicer couple.
However, despite the rapid growth of the minority population, U.S. elections are currently still dominated by whites. They cast 79% of the votes in 2004 and things will remain that way for several decades. That makes predicting whether Obama would win in the fall even murkier than a typical Presidential election when two white men are running against each other.
In contrast, if I was trying to forecast a Kenyan election, I'd just tally up the numbers of Kikuyus, Kalenjins, Luos (whose candidate/warlord, Raila Odinga, claims, probably falsely, to be Obama's first cousin), and the other three dozen tribes, see which tribe is allied with which tribe at the moment, toss in a guess of how many votes the ruling party will steal, and, presto, there's your winner.
American identity politics is more complicated. There is still a majority tribe, one that is so accustomed to being dominant that it doesn't (yet) think of itself as a tribe that competes with other tribes. Instead, elements within the white tribe compete primarily against each other.
White behavior is particularly difficult to model, because whites strive endlessly for status against other whites, constantly scanning for novel ways to claw their way to the top over each other. In this status struggle, nonwhites seldom register on whites' radar screens as rivals. Instead, whites see them more as useful props in the eternal struggle to gain the upper hand over other whites.
Obviously, this analysis mostly applies to a particular class of whites, but it's the class that dominates the media and drives fads. The new satirical website StuffWhitePeopleLike.com acerbically profiles the status-climbing strategies of this element. (A reader suggests we call them "whiterpeople" to emphasize their white-on-white competitiveness, allowing us to say things like "That's mighty whiter of you".)
High on the list of StuffWhitePeopleLike is:
Because white people are afraid that if they don't like him that they will be called racist.
One of Hillary's advisors told The Guardian during the New Hampshire campaign:
"If you have a social need, you're with Hillary. If you want Obama to be your imaginary hip black friend and you're young and you have no social needs, then he's cool."
As Larry Summers and James Watson found out, we live in an age that revels in conformism. But whiterpeople like to pretend they are rebels. So there is a relentless churn in what's fashionable. This must worry Obama's handlers: Has their man peaked too soon? In Slate, Dahlia Lithwick parodied:
"I know it's kind of lame to break up with you on Valentine's Day… I can't like you because … because, well, everyone else does. … Feeling inspired is soooo early-February… I liked you before liking you was cool. But now it is, so it's not. Know what I mean?"
She burbles on:
"It's not you, Barack, it's me. Really it always was me, but now it's really, really about me. I don't know when we started to feel weird supporting you, but my friend Hanna thinks it started with that 'Yes We Can' video. I mean, last week I was totally crying watching it. Now just thinking about how choked up I got gives me the creeps. … Feeling inspired is soooo early-February."
With whiterpeople, it's always about us versus other whites.
On the other hand, there are also tens of millions of normal white people who can't stand the whiterpeople and enjoy frustrating them.
- Will Obama lose some white voters because he's black?
For example, New York City's liberal voters (especially its Jews) have been in no hurry to elect another black mayor. Since David Dinkins' single term, they've even endured the supreme indignity of voting Republican four mayoral elections in a row to make sure they have a white mayor. So no doubt some whites will vote against Obama because they don't feel it's worth taking the chance.
- Will Obama gain some white voters because he's black?
I've heard all sorts of different theories about why voting for a black candidate is a good idea. I particularly enjoy hearing the popular notion that electing an African-American President will prove to blacks that white racism isn't holding them down anymore and therefore they should give up affirmative action.
(Don't hold your breath!)
- Will Obama's gains outnumber his losses?
Okay, you finally pinned me down.
I'm not ashamed to say I don't know.
Let's recall some recent Presidential election history. It doesn't have much to do with race, but it's instructive because it was so unpredictably bizarre that nobody wants to mention it anymore. Pundits don't bring these 16-year-old events up as a possible historical analogy for anything that might happen again this year because it seems unbelievable that it even happened once. Yet it really did happen, which is the most important lesson of all:
Suddenly announcing he was going to run for President as an independent in January 1992, billionaire H. Ross Perot proved such a ball of fire on the campaign trail that by spring he led both President Bush and Governor Clinton in the polls. The man and the moment had seemingly come together on a historic scale. Perot then disappeared into seclusion for the summer, muttering about a CIA plot to disrupt his daughter's wedding. In the early fall, he apparently cycled from depressive to back to manic and wound up getting 19 percent nationwide, the best Third Party showing since Teddy Roosevelt.
What this shows is that nobody knows nothin' about what will happen involving individual personalities in electoral politics. That's why Presidential campaigns are interesting—because they are hard to predict.
Susan Estrich, who dealt so ineffectually with the GOP's Willie Horton attack in 1988 when she managed Michael Dukakis's campaign, argues that the Democrats should nominate Hillary because whites will vote against Obama. She compares Obama's tendency to be ahead in the polls yet lose, most notably in New Hampshire, to the famous case of Tom Bradley, the black Mayor of Los Angeles who narrowly lost the 1982 California gubernatorial election:
"About 10 percent of the electorate claimed that they were going to vote for [Bradley], and in many cases even told pollsters that they did, but they lied. Shocking. Racism in America. Who'd a thunk it?"
Actually, it may not be racism. A more parsimonious explanation for the Bradley Effect is that voters are scared of being accused of being racist for not endorsing the black candidate (why, by the way, is still legal). This helps explain why Obama has done so well in caucuses, where people have to vote in public.
In the big picture, Bradley's 1982 loss was hardly a surprise—California was much more Republican back then, voting for the GOP Presidential candidate in 9 out of 10 elections from 1952 through 1988. Overall, Bradley was not a tragic victim of racism: he won five terms as mayor of Los Angeles from 1973-1992, a city that was then only about 15 percent black.
"Years later, when a student, commenting on Bradley's lack of personal charisma and his caution, wondered aloud whether Los Angeles had elected a black Gerald Ford rather than a black John Kennedy, Bradley replied: 'I'm not a black this or a black that. I'm just Tom Bradley.'"
Since Bradley's near miss in 1982, only two blacks have been elected governor of any of the 50 states. And only two blacks have been elected U.S. Senators.
What happened? The Voting Rights Act was amended in the 1980s to demand the creation of "majority minority" districts. Due to this gerrymandering to create black districts, a large fraction of black politicians now begin their careers running in black-majority districts. They learn only to harvest votes by pandering to black resentment of whites. This is terrible preparation for later runs for statewide office, where they have to avoid frightening whites to win.
Besides, African-Americans have become more culturally assertive since Tom Bradley's day. Thus, Obama, who was raised by the white half of his family (blogger Udolpho calls him "Barry Half-White") has striven (but also struggled) his entire life to be "black enough". Running in a Democratic primary for a House of Representatives' seat in 2000, he was humiliatingly rejected by the all-black electorate, who voted instead for a former Black Panther.
There's some evidence that Obama became more reconciled to his half-whiteness in the aftermath of his psychologically crushing defeat. But nobody in the press seems to want to ask him about it.
You've heard an enormous amount about Obama's white
support. For example, he has won quite a few caucuses in
deeply Republican Western states by turning out the kind
cranks activists who helped
Ralph Nader to his best statewide performances in
Through Super Tuesday, Obama tended to do well in heavily black states and in virtually all-white states. In states where blacks don't dominate the Democratic Party but are enough of a presence that whites are not taken in as easily by media propaganda about race, Obama fared less well.
When you add it all up, it doesn't quite amount to as much as the puffery would suggest. That's because Democrats only carried 41 percent of the white vote in 2004 and 42% in 2000. Through Super Tuesday, my estimates show whites casting a little under 40 percent of their vote in the Democratic primaries for Obama. Since the Democrats only carried 41 percent of the white vote in the 2004, a simple calculation of multiplying the two percentages together suggests that, despite all the hoopla, Obama only won around 16 percent of the total white vote (Democrats plus Republicans) through Super Tuesday.
In any case, multiplying Obama's share of the Democrats by the Democrats' share of the white vote is the kind of calculation you don't see much of in the Main Stream Media, due both to the innumeracy of the press and to its long-term resistance to thinking about "the white vote". To white pundits, the white population seems like the sea must seem to fish, who are frequently said (on what authority, I cannot say) not to feel wet. The white world is the world they swim in, the one where they struggle for status against other whites so they don't notice it.
Yet, as the Pew numbers show, government policy has been to shrink the pond.
None of this to say that Obama would necessarily fail to draw a large number of white votes in November. The GOP collapse because of another four more years of Bush Administration Invade the World-Invite the World policies means the Democrats will likely do better than the last two Presidential elections.
And, unlike John McCain, who couldn't win a majority of Republicans in his home state of Arizona, maybe Obama will grow on voters. His impressive performance on Super Tuesday in his adoptive home state of Illinois, where he won 65 percent of the overall vote suggests he could be a formidable candidate in November. Obama won 57 percent of white Democrats in Illinois.
But he had the backing of Mayor Daley's Machine in Chicago, Richie Daley isn't one of those starry-eyed nitwits who chant "We Want Change" while Obama orates about "hope". Instead, Hizzoner presumably sees Obama as the kind of man he can do business with in the Oval Office—just like his father did business with JFK and LBJ.
Granted, it doesn't make much sense that Obama is the choice of both the whiterpeople and the old rogue Daley. But Obama's campaign strategy is to be all things to all people. This means that if Obama is elected, beginning January 20, 2009 somebody is going to be disappointed, but nobody yet knows who.
Obama has spent decades letting people assume that he agrees with them. It's made him a plausible Presidential election winner, but nobody really knows what he intends to do with supreme power.
Obama is smart, diligent, eloquent, no more crooked than other Chicago politicians, and so ambitious and self-disciplined that he has played his cards close to his vest for years waiting for this moment. For example, other than writing an endless autobiography at age 33 that almost nobody except me has finished, this extremely verbal man managed to skate through the 1980s and 1990s without leaving a paper trail of published articles. The single essay that Lexis-Nexis can find is a 1994 NPR commentary (which is not online):
"Charles Murray's Political Expediency Denounced
"HIGHLIGHT: Commentator Barack Obama finds that Charles Murray, author of the controversial "The Bell Curve," demonstrates not scientific expertise but spurious political motivation in his conclusions about race and IQ."
Stop and think about that for a moment: Charles Murray was denounced for "political expediency" by Barack Obama!
So, to Obama's long list of political strengths, you can add gall. It always comes in handy when you want to be President.
My summary: in the general election, Obama will have to get at least two out of five white voters to have a good shot at winning.
Maybe he can develop that kind of appeal. But it's not happened yet.
To prevent it from happening, the Republicans would likely need to choose between two general strategies
- Run against Iran.
My guess is that McCain will shun the former because he's terrified of being criticized by his media friends for being "divisive." So instead he'll try to whip up World War III (IV?) fever against Iran to "bring us together".
It worked in 2004. But will it work again?