Obama’s problem with white folks

By Alan Bean

A new Pew Poll shows that Barack Obama isn’t connecting with white voters.  This is hardly big news: Obama won just 43% of the white vote in the 2008 election.  But his popularity rating with white voters now rests at 38%.  Even more chilling, if you’re a Democrat, a full 60% of the white electorate backed Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm election.

What’s going on here?  Two things. 

First, as we commemorate the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Republican Party is still advertising itself (surreptitiously, of course) as the Party of White.  

In the short run, this makes a lot of political sense.  Baby boomers, the demographic currently controlling American politics, are 75% white.  But the “Party of White” strategy will shortly run out of gas.   From the earliest days of European colonization, America has been a majority white nation.  Not for long.  A slight majority of Americans 18 and younger are people of color.  These rapidly shifting demographic patterns have injected a strong dose of cognitive dissonance into the hearts and minds of white folk.  We feel we are losing control.  We pull the red lever because we hope it will preserve the white-dominated world we were born into.

Meanwhile, our black president avoids the subject of race.  In his public view, there are no black and brown and white Americans–we’re all red, white and blue.  African-Americans aren’t all enamored of the president’s accommodating, bend-don’t-break politics, but they continue to support him because . . . well, just look at the alternatives.

The president won two-thirds of the Latino vote in 2008, but his approval ratings with this group have recently slipped to an unimpressive 54%. 

The second factor placing downward pressure on Obama’s approval ratings relates to narrative, or storytelling.  Realizing that the Republicans are marketing themselves as the Party of White, Barack Obama should be selling the blue alternative as the party of radical inclusion, fairness and equal opportunity. 

He’s not doing that.  Instead, like so many Democrats before him, Obama is peddling a version of Republican Lite.  Sure we need to cut taxes and spending; just not so much.  Sure the business community must be placated and pampered (they finance the American political machine after all); but there are limits.  We want to press for equal opportunity; but not so hard that we piss off the white folks.

It is a sad commentary that the strongest critique of mass incarceration in the political arena is currently coming from fiscal conservatives like Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich.  In a letter to NAACP president, Ben Jealous, Gingrich had this to say:

Last year alone, we spent $68 billion on corrections in the United States – 300 percent more than 25 years ago. With this increased spending, one would hope that we would have seen successes in rehabilitation, recidivism rates, and stronger and safer communities. The results are mostly disappointing: half of this year’s released prisoners are expected to return to prison within three years. If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives – especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons —it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.

Why is Newt Gingrich talking this way while our presumably progressive president keeps greasing the machinery of mass incarceration?  Two reasons.  Mass incarceration is unspeakably expensive and Gingrich is a fiscal conservative.  Secondly, mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color and Gingrich knows which way the demographic winds are blowing. 

Isn’t Newt worried that white voters will react negatively?  Not at all.  Republicans win elections because they understand the narrative arts.  As Walter Fisher taught us back in the 1980s, people respond to stories more than they respond to formal logic.  A good message implies a story.  “Lock ’em up and throw away to the key” is a strong political message because it makes us feel safe and protected from dangerous people.  It is a particularly good message for white voters because, for us, the stereotypical dangerous person has a black face.  But the message also appeals to many people of color because they are far more likely to be impacted by violent crime than white people.

The phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” also inspires a host of images: the story of the Prodigal Son chief among them.  We love rags-to-riches stories of redemption.  We want to believe that troubled, haunted people can be healed and restored.  We believe in second chances. 

But here’s the surprising thing: most Americans respond positively to both “lock ’em up and throw away the key” and “there but for the grace of God go I” messages.  Sure, if forced to choose, most of us have a preference for one story or the other.  But we rarely have to choose.  One set of stories appeals to fear, the other appeals to hope–two universal and deeply human emotions.

Our president fears that if he appeals too strongly to the narratives of inclusion, hope and redemption he will lose even more of the conservative white vote.  He is forgetting that voters are fearful-hopeful hybrids who love nothing so much as a good story.  Present the corporate community as a brave band of risk taking, job-creating, entrepreneurs and Americans will cut their taxes even if it leads to the financial meltdown we are confronting today.  Paint that same community as pampered, self-centered opportunists and voters will demand they pay their fair share.  In fact, most Americans respond positively to both stories; it’s just a matter of which story is being told most often and with the greatest passion.

If Barack Obama wants to increase his support with white voters he needs to fall back on his strength–telling stories about the kind of America he believes in.

Pew Poll: Obama Struggling With White Voters

By Ronald Brownstein

April 7, 2011

The latest Pew Research Center national poll released today underscores how slender a beachhead President Obama has established among whites more than two years into his presidency.

In his 2008 election, Obama ran well only among two groups of whites — young people and white women with at least a four year college education, two groups that are generally receptive to government activism. In the 2010 GOP landslide, those groups stuck with Democrats relatively more loyally than the rest of the white electorate, but the party’s support tumbled even among them.

Figures provided to National Journal by Pew from the new survey suggests that Obama has recaptured ground Democrats lost with well-educated white women in 2010-but that he is still struggling with every other segment of the white electorate, including younger voters.

These results underscore the basic dynamic looming over the 2012 presidential race. On the one hand, Obama will benefit from a wave of diversity that has increased the minority share of the population in every state since 2000, according to recently released results from the 2010 Census.

On the other, polls consistently suggest he may struggle to match the modest 43 percent support among whites that he drew in 2008, according to the Edison Research exit poll. In the 2010 mid-term election, according to the Edison exit poll, just 37 percent of whites backed Democrats in House races, while 60 percent supported Republicans-the highest share of the white vote Republicans have won in a House election in the history of modern polling. Obama’s approval rating among all whites in the Pew survey stands at a similar 38 percent.

The poll, which surveyed 1,507 adults from March 30 to April 3, put Obama’s overall approval rating at 47 percent with 45 percent disapproving. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Obama’s best group in the white electorate remains well-educated women, who tend toward more liberal positions on social issues as well as greater receptivity to government activism. In the new poll, 56 percent of college-educated white women said they approved of Obama’s performance. That’s a slight improvement from the 52 percent of such women who voted for him in 2008, according to the Edison Research exit poll. It’s also a big improvement from the 43 percent of college-plus white women who backed Democratic House candidates in 2010. (Well-educated white women provided substantially more support for Democrats in some key 2010 Senate races, including contests in Colorado, California and Wisconsin.)

The rest of the white electorate remains deeply cool to Obama, the Pew survey found. Just 38 percent of college-educated white men said they approve of the president. That’s down from the 42 percent of the vote he won from those men in 2008, and only a slight improvement from the miniscule 35 percent House Democrats won with them in 2010.

Obama’s approval rating in the Pew survey stood at just 34 percent among white women without a college education-the so-called waitress moms. Democrats have often had high hopes for capturing those economically-strained, culturally-conservative women, but the new result only underscores their consistent Republican tilt: Obama won just 41 percent of them in 2008, and House Democrats just 34 percent of them in 2010.

The toughest group for Obama remains white men without a college-education-the blue-collar workers who constituted the foundation of the Democratic electoral coalition from 1932 to 1968. Just 35 percent of them said they approve of his performance in the Pew poll. That’s below even the 39 percent of them Obama carried in 2008, though slightly above the Democrats’ microscopic 32 percent showing with them in 2010, according to the exit poll. All of these results suggest that the gap between Obama’s support among college-educated white women and non-college white men-which stood at a formidable 13 percentage points in 2008-might easily widen even further in 2012.

Looking at the white electorate by age shows fewer fissures — but one bright red flag for the president. In the Pew survey, Obama’s approval rating among white seniors stands at just 38 percent; he draws just 35 percent approval from those aged 50-64 and 40 percent from those 30-49. Generally, that’s slightly, but not markedly, below his support from those groups in 2008.

Perhaps the most ominous trend for Obama in the Pew survey is that just 41 percent of whites under 30 said they approved of his performance; in 2008, he won 54 percent of those younger whites. In the 2010 exit poll, Democrats’ support among those whites sagged to 45 percent, but even that remained much higher than their backing among older whites.

Almost as troubling for Obama is his showing among Hispanics in the poll. Just 54 percent of Hispanics in the Pew survey said they approved of his performance, a finding that echoes the results in recent Gallup polls. Given Obama’s persistent difficulties in the white community, he can’t afford much softening among Hispanics, who gave him two-thirds of their votes last time and represent a steadily growing share of the population in key swing states from Nevada and Colorado to North Carolina and Virginia, and even Iowa and New Hampshire.

It’s unclear, though, if any Republican will emerge from the GOP nominating process positioned to benefit from that cooling-or whether, as some conservative Hispanic activists fear, pressure from the conservative primary electorate will tug them toward such uncompromising positions on immigration that they alienate Latino voters otherwise open to a change.

3 thoughts on “Obama’s problem with white folks

  1. I had a forward yesterday of a rant by Bill Cosby. Most of it is difficult to refute. Ghetto blacks need to speak standard English if they want to get a job. Ghetto dads should be present for their children, etc. etc. Bill also takes a swipe at referring to black Americans as African-Americans. I can even agree with that in a perfect America. I’m reminded of a story of Bess Truman hosting some female group in the Rose Garden. One of them said, “Mrs. Truman, could you prevail upon the President to cease speaking of ‘manuring’ the roses?” Bess replied, “You don’t know how hard it was for me to get him to say ‘manure.'”

    Bill Cosby doesn’t know what a giant leap forward it would be for some of my West Texas acquaintances to say “Arican-American.”

    I see where the Arizona legislature has passed a “birther” bill, requiring that any candidate for president prove their U. S. birth to be on the ballot in Arizona. Some Texas legislator has proposed a similar bill. I don’t know where that one stands down in Austin. I doubt if people would be clamoring for such if Obama’s name were O’Bama, and his father had been born in Ireland.

  2. Typo: should be “African-American” not “Arican-American.” I don’t know where Arica is, but Obama was probably born there!

  3. In a welcome surprise move, Gov. Brewer of Arizona has vetoed the AZ birther bill, along with a guns on campus bill.

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