Beneath some of the sharpest assaults on Barack Obama—that he consorted with radicals, that he condescended to small-town Americans—was a lingering question: Would white America help elect a black president?
On Tuesday, Obama rode a surge of support across many voter groups. And white Americans played a major role in putting the first black president in the White House.
Obama did not win a majority of white voters; no Democrat has since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But he ran equal to the last three Democratic candidates for president among white voters, and even slightly better than the party’s 2004 nominee, according to an Edison/Mitofsky exit poll conducted for a consortium of TV networks and the Associated Press.
Race proved to be no discernible handicap, even among the small-town, working-class whites who were considered most resistant to the black political newcomer from Chicago.
The force propelling Obama was clear: a troubled economy that had gone from shaky in the spring and summer to frightening in the fall. But in choosing an African American as the best person to lead in a time of crisis, the nation’s voters have broken a number of long-held truths about the hold of race on the country.
Racial antagonism still exists. But with Obama’s victory, voters showed that such feelings no longer hovered over American politics as they had for decades.
Most symbolic of that achievement was Obama’s victory in Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy, where the candidate ended his 21-month campaign with a massive rally in Manassas, near the site of one of the epic battles of the Civil War.
Breaking with recent assumptions, Obama showed that a single candidate can appeal to black voters without losing whites, and to white voters without losing blacks.
Obama improved on past Democratic performances among all groups, with the singular exception of seniors. He improved on 2004 nominee John F. Kerry’s totals among Jews, Protestants and Catholics. While Kerry split women’s votes with Bush, Obama won a decisive majority.
Moreover, Obama won the votes of 4 in 10 white men—higher than the last five Democratic presidential nominees, according to a National Journal study of exit polls—and nearly half of white independents.
Latinos, courted aggressively by both sides with Spanish-language ad campaigns, went overwhelmingly for Obama. McCain, once popular with Latinos, won 3 in 10—a deep decline from the 45% won four years ago by Bush.
Just as Obama helped expand the Democratic coalition—bringing with him new U.S. senators and House members in Republican states from Florida to North Carolina—Republicans now face a drastically narrowed party.
Tuesday’s results show that Bush and McCain have left the GOP appealing primarily to white conservatives at a time when Obama’s ascension symbolizes the growing multiculturalism of America.
The African American share of the electorate, for example, grew slightly, according to network exit polls. That was no doubt a result of the excitement over Obama’s candidacy and a deliberate strategy by his campaign to register new voters and contact blacks who had not participated in the past.
Gone from the Bush win column of 2004 were two pivotal states—Ohio and Florida—both of which boast growing ethnic diversity. In greater Miami, an ethnic microcosm with large populations of blacks and Latinos, Obama won by more than 140,000 votes—more than tripling the Democrats’ edge there four years ago. In populous Pinellas County near Tampa, Fla., where Bush and Kerry tied, Obama won by 40,000 votes.
But the most reassuring numbers of all for Obama strategists may have been the results among white voters—particularly those in working-class areas and in key suburbs.
Even in the coal country of southwestern Virginia, Obama minimized his losses, perhaps thanks to his two visits to the region and a swarming effort by the campaign to reassure skeptical whites that his policies were better for their lives. As the president of the coal miners union told locals repeatedly in recent weeks, they could elect a “black friend” or a “white enemy.”