Sunday, September 21, 2008
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The much talked about recent AP-Yahoo poll found that many whites harbor vicious and vile stereotypes about blacks. This is hardly the revelation of the ages. Nor is its finding that hidden and not so hidden bias toward blacks can potentially torpedo Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama’s White House run. What is eye catching in the poll is the finding that many white Democrats are just as biased if not more so than many Republicans. If Obama sinks, they, not Republican rival John McCain will sink him.
Vote and party jumping based solely on race is nothing new. In a 2006 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a Yale political economist found that white Republicans are 25 percentage points more likely to cross over and vote for a Democratic senatorial candidate against a black Republican foe. The study also found that in the near twenty year stretch from 1982 to 2000, when the GOP candidate was black, the greater majority of white independent voters backed the white candidate. There’s nothing especially surprising about that since it’s virtually an article of racial faith among blacks, liberal Democrats, and political pundits that overt and subtle racial bias is almost exclusively the monopoly of Republicans. That’s a politically correct delusion.
The study found that many Democrats were just as guilty of dubious Election Day color-blindness as Republicans and independents; maybe even more so. In House races, the study found that Democrats were nearly 40 percent less likely to back a black Democratic candidate than a white Democrat. The shift by conservative-centrist white Democrats to like politic GOP presidential contenders is a staple in recent American politics. The GOP scorecard in White House wins would not be seven to three over the Democrats since Richard Nixon’s win in 1968 if conservative white Democrats had not consistently shifted their vote to the GOP. Democrats have always had a gaping disparity in registered voters over Republicans. In 2004 there were ten million more registered Democrats than Republicans. On paper, the gaping disparity in numbers should guarantee a cake to the White House by any Democrat. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case.
1964 GOP presidential contender Barry Goldwater was the first to spot the opening for the GOP among disaffected white conservative Democrats. His naked states rights pitch and rail against big government and welfare sparked the first wave of white Southern Democrats to the GOP. Nixon exploited the opening even more in 1968. His appeal for law and order, bash of permissiveness, and crackdown on ghetto rioters sparked more flight from the Democrats by blue-collar ethnics. Reagan widened the breach even more among Democrats. Fed up with bussing, affirmative action, and crime (always seen as committed by African-Americans) droves of white Democrats flocked to the GOP in even bigger numbers.
The first big hint that conservative white Democrats could cause problems for Obama came in the Democratic primary in Ohio. Hillary Clinton beat out Obama in the primary and she did it mainly with white votes. But that wasn't the whole story. Nearly one quarter of whites in Ohio flatly said race did matter in voting. Presumably that meant that they would not vote for a black candidate no matter how politically attractive or competent he was.
An even bigger hint of Obama’s race problem came in Pennsylvania's primary. The voter demographics in the state perfectly matched those in Ohio. A huge percent of Pennsylvania voters are blue collar, anti-big government, socially conservative, pro defense, and intently patriotic, and there's a tormenting history of a racial polarization in the state. Take the state's two big, racially diverse cities out of the vote equation, and Pennsylvania would be rock solid red state Republican. Clinton, of course, trounced Obama in the state. The same percent of white Democrats as in Ohio told exit poll interviewers that they would not back Obama. Race was the prime reason. Clinton racked up victories in the West Virginia, Kentucky and South Dakota primaries. Again, a significant percent of white Democrats said they would not back Obama, and the reason was race. This time many white Democrats made no effort to hide their racial animus toward Obama.
In the AP-Yahoo poll one third of white Democrats said they had negative views of blacks. “Violent,” “lazy,” “boastful,” “complaining” and “irresponsible” were the terms many used to describe blacks. More than 40 percent of them said they would not back Obama. This is nearly identical to the number who say they will not back him in the key Democratic primaries.
Just how many of them actually mean what they say is a big question mark. But if past history of party switching by white Democrats holds up the odds are that more than a few mean it. They’d jump the Democratic Party ship even if race wasn’t the obvious issue. But it is, and that could spell trouble for Obama on Election Day.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).