Since 1964, no Democrat has won a majority of white voters in a presidential election. Although most media accounts of the 2008 election suggest a reversal of fortune for the Democrats, Obama's recent victory did not alter this statistic.
In 1964 Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed major civil rights legislation, which prohibited racial discrimination in a host of contexts, including employment and places of public accommodation. One provision (Title VI) also banned racial discrimination in the usage of federal money. Enforcement of this law would have bankrupted southern schools systems, because the federal government provides large amounts of financial assistance to state educational systems. Although the Supreme Court had decided Brown v. Board of Education 10 years earlier, in 1964 only 1% of white and black kids attended schools together in the South. Standing alone, Brown did not affect the racial composition of schools, although the case became an important symbol that organized blacks and their supporters to lobby for more progressive changes. After reading this blog entry, you might view Obama's victory in a similar light.
When LBJ signed the 1964 legislation, he predicted that the Democrats would lose a whole generation of the South. He was correct. But following this year's election, many commentators have argued that race relations have dramatically shifted and that the South (and other red territory) has now become blue (or at least purple), citing to Obama's victories in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, and Indiana.
Furthermore, much of the commentary surrounding the election has concluded that Obama's success in red states means that most Americans have discarded race-based identity politics and that the electoral map has permanently shifted as a result. Some of the most wildly hopeful liberals assert that the nation is now left-of-center and that Obama's administration will implement a comprehensive liberal agenda, while an impotent GOP watches in utter dismay.
Well, here at Dissenting Justice, I like to combine a hopeful outlook with a healthy dose of down-home southern "straight talk" (not the McCain-Palin variety). Consider me the designated driver among political commentators this year. Despite the dramatic discourse that proclaims a radical shift in U.S. race relations and political ideology, my analysis of exit polls in the state-to-state contests suggests that starry eyed commentators need a reality check.
In many blue states, for example, Obama failed to get a majority of white voters. In several others, he only won a very slight majority of white voters. The vast amount of support he generated from black and Latino voters helped deliver him the victory in those states where he was unable to secure a majority of white support. To Mr. Obama's credit, Gore and Kerry faced similar obstacles. But while the media announce the end of race, identity politics -- in terms of race-based voting -- clearly played a significant role in Obama's victory. Below, I provide a breakdown of the results of my analysis, which relies upon CNN exit poll data.
*11 Blue States Where Obama Failed to Get a Majority of White Votes:
Colorado (50-48), Florida (42-56), Indiana (45-54), Maryland (47-49), New Jersey (49-50), Nevada (53-45), New Mexico (42-56), North Carolina (35-64), Ohio (46-52), Pennsylvania (48-51), and Virginia (60-39).
*5 Blue States where Obama Received a Small Majority (51-52%) of White Votes:
California (52-46), Connecticut (51-46), Illinois (51-48), Iowa (51-47), and Michigan (51-47).
Data Summary and Big Picture
Obama lost the white vote by a wide margin in the traditional red states. Of the 28 states that voted for Obama, he only won a majority of white votes in 17 of them. 5 of the 17 are in New England; two of them include his birthplace of Hawaii and his current home state of Illinois. Obama' received only a small majority (between 51-52%) of white votes in Connecticut, California, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan. UPDATE: Initially, I neglected to pull the white-voter data from Iowa and Illinois. Now I have corrected this. Incredibly, Obama only won 51% of white voters in both states!
Black and Latino voters helped secure his victory in key states. In Pennsylvania, for example, blacks and Latinos made up 17% of the electorate, and Obama received 95% of black votes and 72% of Latino votes. In Nevada, blacks and Latinos represented 25% of the vote, and Obama won blacks by 94% and Latinos by 72%. In Florida, blacks and Latinos cast 27% of the votes, and Obama won blacks by 96% and Latinos by 57%. In Indiana, where blacks and Latinos cast 7% of the votes, Obama won blacks by 90% and Latinos by 77%. In Ohio, blacks were 11% of the electorat, and Obama won 97% of their votes. In North Carolina, Obama secured 95% of black votes; blacks represented 23% of all votes in the Tar Heel State. Finally, in California, blacks and Latinos were 28% of the votes, and Obama won 95% and 74% of these important votes.
This breakdown does not mean that Obama only won because of blacks and Latinos. It does demonstrate, however, that race remains a very strong factor in voter preference -- despite all of the hoopla about the demise of race, racism, and social conservatism. A sizeable gender gap also remains pervasive in virtually all states. And California voters, who approved an anti-gay constitutional amendment, remind us that "sexual orientation" divides even the heart of the Democratic Party. Although blacks in California (and nationwide) gave Obama even more votes than they have delivered to Democratic candidates in the recent past, they also flexed their heterosexual political strength and helped to enshrine bigotry in the state constitution. Florida, Arizona and Arkansas also passed anti-gay initiatives, and affirmative action survived in suddenly blue Colorado by a hair.
Although I am happy to see very jubilant people of color and energized voters, liberals need to come back to Earth very soon because their distorted perception of the current political landscape will only harm social justice efforts. At some point (hopefully soon), the election-night buzz must concede to sobriety, and then all of us who desire concrete progressive change must engage in the tough work of organizing and developing strategies to make these changes a reality.