Beyond LePage: Obama, the white vote, and racial unity

Has President Obama polarized America and made racial divisions worse? Where does he stand among white voters?

My last post showed that in Maine and a number of other places, the president won more white voters that Gov. LePage.

But how has Obama done, when compared to other Democratic presidential candidates?

If Obama is uniquely polarizing, you’d expect he would have done a lot worse than other Democrats in attracting white support.

That’s not so.

Here’s a chart going back forty years showing the percentage of the white vote won by Democratic presidential candidates. [source]

As you can see, Obama won 39% of the national white vote in 2012, down from 43% in 2008.

But how is 39% in historical context?

It matches the 39% won in 1992 by Bill Clinton, a white southerner.

Moreover, it’s higher than the amount won by some Democrats, McGovern in 1972, Carter in 1980 and Mondale in 1984.

To be sure, Obama’s share of the white vote in 2012 is lower than that won by a number of other Democrats. But it is not the lowest.

At the same time, the Democratic party has become a strong multi-racial coalition.

Since 1972, the overall percentage of voters who are white has decreased.

As this has happened, the Democratic party has tended to keep about 40% of the white vote. Sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less. And they also attract black, Hispanic and Asian voters in significant numbers.

Republicans are attracting around 60% of the white vote but few nonwhite voters.

Here’s a chart showing this dynamic. [source]

Here you can see that, in 2012, Democrats got 56% of their votes from white voters and 44% from nonwhite voters.

In contrast, in 2012, Republicans got 89% of their votes from white voters and 11% from nonwhites.

Yesterday Maine GOP Chair Rick Bennett went on the record in characterizing what Gov. LePage said about Obama and race. (He did not back the report that the governor said Obama “hates white people.” Amidst further denials today come reports that the state Republican party and the governor’s staff are trying to track down the sources for this story.)

In any case, according to the Bangor Daily News:

Bennett, reached Monday, confirmed the governor made comments about President Obama and race during the fundraiser.

“[Gov. LePage] said President Obama had an opportunity to unify the country on race, but didn’t do anything,” Bennett said. [source]

Unifying the country on race is a tall order.

But, when you look at second graph above, it looks like one political party has brought together whites and nonwhites in a winning presidential coalition. Another hasn’t.

With the 2012 results in, Democratic presidential candidates have now won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

To win future presidential races, Republicans will need to move beyond its overwhelming reliance on white voters to put together a similar multiracial coalition.

Republicans didn’t need to do so when whites were a much larger percentage of the voting population. Now that whites are a shrinking percentage of the electorate, appealing across racial lines is the only way they can win future presidential races. If that and “unifying the races” is something they want, they have a long way to go.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.