Will Racism Hinder Obama’s Re-Election?

Donald R. Kinder, Washington Post, February 3, 2012

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In “The End of Race?,” we show that Obama prevailed in 2008 in spite of his race. Obama suffered substantial loss of support among white voters that, race aside, he would have been expected to win—in much the same way that John Kennedy’s Catholicism cost him support among Protestants in 1960. This was so despite the best efforts of the Obama campaign to neutralize race.

By and large, Obama did not talk about race; did not go out of his way to seek the endorsement of prominent black leaders; spent most of his time in front of white audiences; and avoided the rhetoric of racial grievance. Nevertheless, because Obama embodied blackness, race, as David Remnick put it, “was the thing always present, the thing so rarely mentioned.” Inevitably and inescapably, Obama’s presence activated feelings of racial resentment, and this cost him votes.

At the same time, Obama also gained votes by virtue of his race. Turnout among African Americans was up dramatically in 2008, and since African Americans supported Obama nearly unanimously, this produced a rich harvest of votes for the Democrat.

Taking both the loss of support among whites and the gain in support among blacks into account, we calculate that Obama received roughly 5 percentage points less than he would have on account of his race. Obama should have won nearly 59 percent of the vote. His victory over Sen. McCain should have resembled Ronald Reagan’s landslide defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984.

Obama was elected, of course, but his victory had mostly to do with the electorate’s broad unhappiness with the Bush Administration. {snip}

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What does this analysis say about 2012? First of all, it is conceivable that prejudice will play a smaller role in 2012 than it did in 2008. Obama is better known, and the country did not turn upside down under his leadership.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that prejudice itself has diminished. White voters have not forgotten that the president is black. And the president’s record—on health care or financial regulation or Iraq—supplies the public with justifications for opposition that some voters may use to camouflage resentments that are actually rooted in race. Prejudice will no doubt work against the president in 2012.

A second implication has to do with turnout. In 2008, Obama profited by a surge in voting among African Americans. Will the Obama campaign be able to duplicate this effort in 2012? Perhaps. But it may prove more difficult to mobilize African Americans on behalf of retaining the first black president in office than it was in placing him in office in the first place. From this point of view, Obama may pay an even steeper race penalty in 2012 than he did in 2008.

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{snip} If Barack Obama’s election in 2008 demonstrates how far we have come as a nation, it also reveals, when examined closely, how far we have yet to go.

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