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Does Obama Have a Problem with White Voters?

A Commentary by Alan I. Abramowitz

Friday, July 18, 2008

"Poll Finds Obama's Run Isn't Closing Divide on Race," reads the headline on the front page of the July 16th New York Times . The article beneath the headline observes that despite Barack Obama's candidacy, the results of a new CBS/New York Times Poll show that American society is still deeply divided along racial lines. Blacks and whites continue to hold divergent views about the state of race relations in the United States with whites far more optimistic than blacks. Moreover, white and black voters have dramatically different opinions about the nation's first black presidential candidate. Black voters view Obama much more favorably than white voters. In fact a plurality of white voters in the CBS/New York Times Poll had an unfavorable opinion of Obama.

The results of the poll are interesting. But is anyone surprised that Barack Obama's victory in the Democratic nomination contest has not changed the way blacks and whites view race relations in the United States? Or that black voters have much more positive opinions of a black presidential candidate than white voters? Anyone who was surprised by these findings hasn't been following the news for the past 40 years.

There's something important missing from the New York Times article and more generally from commentary on the role of race in the 2008 presidential election: a sense of historical perspective. Racial attitudes are based on people's upbringing and life experiences. They don't change overnight. And opinions about presidential candidates are based on longstanding and deeply held party loyalties and ideological orientations.

The assumption underlying much of the commentary about Barack Obama's candidacy in recent months has been that he has a problem with white voters. While questions about Obama's ability to appeal to white voters have been around since he entered the race, they were accentuated by his weak performance among white voters in some of the presidential primaries. In key swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, exit polls showed Obama trailing Hillary Clinton by a wide margin among white voters. Given his problems with white voters in these Democratic primaries, some pundits have assumed that Obama must also have a problem with white voters in the general election.

So does Barack Obama have a problem with white voters? The answer is a resounding "yes." And so has every other Democratic presidential candidate in the past forty years. The last Democratic candidate for president to win a majority of the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Al Gore lost the white vote by 12 points in 2000. John Kerry lost the white vote by 17 points in 2004.

Based on five national polls that have been conducted this month--Gallup, Newsweek, Quinnipiac, CBS/New York Times, and ABC/Washington Post--Barack Obama is currently trailing John McCain by an average of nine points among white voters. So Obama is doing much better than John Kerry and a little better than Al Gore. In fact, the only Democratic presidential candidates in the past four decades who have done better among white voters were Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. Not coincidentally, they were also the only successful Democratic presidential candidates in the past four decades. Based on his current showing in the polls, Barack Obama may well be the next one. With whites expected to comprise less than 80 percent of the 2008 electorate, and with a 20-1 margin among black voters and a 2-1 margin among Hispanic voters, Obama's current nine point deficit among white voters would translate into a decisive victory in November.

Dr. Alan Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University, and the author of Voice of the People: Elections and Voting Behavior in the United States.

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