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
In 2008, though, momentum has been relatively slow to
take hold, allowing more fundamental forces time to
"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.”
Springs Eternal February 11, 2008]
Andrew Kohut of the
Pew Research Center explained in the New York
"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
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
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
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
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."
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
With whiterpeople, it`s always about us versus other
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
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
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
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
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
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
Invade the World-Invite the World policies means the
Democrats will likely do better than the last two
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
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
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):
Political Expediency Denounced
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
gall. It always comes in handy when you want to be
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
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
World War III (IV?) fever against Iran to "bring
worked in 2004. But will it work again?
features his daily blog.]