Lately there has been so much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over Obama and “the white vote” you’d think there was something new, wide-spread, or unprecedented going on. There isn’t. If you look at the data state-by-state it is obvious that the President is polling in alignment with most Democratic candidates over the last few years. Or better. Clinton lost the white vote in both 1992 and 1996. Remember, Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win with over 50% of the white vote since Carter in 1976.
“The white vote” (like I argued this spring for “the Catholic vote”) is a voting-block concept that, frankly, needs to be retired for lack of meaning. I know it makes for flashy alarmist headlines on CNN and FOX but let’s be clear: caucasian generational and geographic diversity–as well as partisan identification–trumps race ultimately.
Washington, Oregon, and Vermont are three mainly caucasian states: Obama is comfortably getting 59%, 60% and 68% (!) of the white people’s’ vote here. Obviously, these are Blue States so voters were naturally predisposed to the “D” after the name and race played less of a factor. But, that’s kind of my point…
However, look at the states of the former Confederacy (Table 2). Alabama white vote? 10%. Mississippi white vote? 11%. Georgia, even with progressive Atlanta, Capitol of the New South? Still only 23% of the white vote went to Obama in 2008. It can’t be emphasized enough: the Southern white vote drastically skews the national “white vote” average and muddies the whole picture to appear different than a typical Red/Blue or Dem/GOP divide. Keep in mind the former Confederate states are extreme even compared to other lily-white Republican states. North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska are so consistently Red most candidates in either party don’t bother to campaign or focus campaign funds there. They also have majority-caucasian, Republican-dominated populations. However they are not even close to the drastically out-of-whack Confederate numbers: North Dakota: 42% white support for Obama in 2008, Montana: 45%, Alaska 33%. In swing states (like Ohio) it’s razor-thin and 50/50. So yes, the votes of some working-class over-55 white people could make that crucial difference thanks to our Electoral College system. Yet, this shouldn’t bring about alarmist headlines about Obama (or any Democrat) losing the white vote as a whole.
From Nixon’s Southern Strategy to today the GOP has slowly but steadily painted itself into a corner as a Southern-dominated party, much the way the Democrats did 100 years ago. This is not news for post-Nixon Democrats: for about thirty years it was obsessively (and in my opinion often foolishly) focused on plunking any white Southerner onto the Democrat ticket (John Edwards, really?) in hopes of peeling off a Southern state or two. As the parties re-aligned 1968-1992 (roughly) this proved a less and less effective path to victory: culminating in the razor-thin election of 2000 where Gore (at the top of the ticket!) couldn’t even bring his home state of Tennessee over to the Democratic column. Think about it this way: for all of Bill Clinton’s newly rejuvenated popularity every talking head would agree he’d need to fight tooth and nail to win his home state of Arkansas (and in my opinion would probably still lose it) in 2012.
However, Clinton wouldn’t have to lift a finger for California: home state of Reagan and Nixon and the biggest electoral prize of all. Neither does Obama. Obama’s numbers reflect the changing demographics of the nation as a whole, a 40-year realignment of the parties’ base, and geographic changes. Rather than yet another repetitive article (or book) fixated on a 2% or 3% drop among rural working-class white voters in the Midwest, how about a piece on the freakishly skewed numbers among white voters in the Deep South?