2012 voters: The deepest racial split since ’88

October 25, 2012

The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama lagging behind Republican Mitt Romney among white voters by 21 percentage points, a steep drop in support from four years ago.

As he did in 2008, Obama gets overwhelming support from non-whites, who made up a record high proportion of the overall electorate four years ago. In that contest, 80 percent of all non-whites supported Obama, including 95 percent of black voters, according to the exit poll. In the Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll released Wednesday, Obama wins 79 percent of non-whites, and support for his reelection is nearly universal among African Americans.

But among whites, Obama is currently doing much worse than he did in 2008. At this stage four years ago, Obama trailed Republican John McCain by eight percentage points among white voters. Even in victory, Obama ended up losing white voters by 12 percentage points.

Obama’s current 21-percent-deficit -- he trails Romney 59 to 38 percent -- would be far harder to overcome, as this year may break a string of increasingly non-white electorates. In 2008, whites made up a record-low 74 percent of all voters; in the latest Post-ABC poll, they made up a similar 75 percent of likely 2012 voters.

In 2004, John Kerry lost white voters to George W. Bush by a similarly wide margin, 58 to 41 percent -- and he also lost the election.

Compared with four years ago, white voter support for Obama is now lower among white men and white independents. (See the latest Post-ABC tracking poll on The Fix at 5 p.m. every day through Nov. 5.)

The clearest loss for the president is among white men. In 2008, Obama lost white men by 16 points, according to the exit poll. This year, Obama trails Romney double that margin -- 33 points -- larger than any deficit for a Democratic candidate since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide win over Walter Mondale.

After splitting their votes 47 percent for Obama and 49 percent for McCain in 2008, whites who identify as political independents now favor Romney over Obama, 59 to 38 percent. Nearly half of all of those who supported Obama in 2008 but Romney in 2012 are white independents. (Overall, whites make up more than 90 percent of “switchers.”)

A key element of Romney’s advantage among all whites is that by 55 to 39 percent, more white voters say he, not Obama understands the economic problems people in this country are having. Among whites without college degrees, Romney is up 58 to 35 percent on this score, expanding what was a narrow gap just a few weeks ago. This advantage comes even as 48 percent of white voters say Romney, as president, would do more to favor the wealthy; 37 percent say he would do more to for the middle class.

Most non-college and college-educated whites alike see Obama as doing more to favor those in the middle, not the wealthy.

VIDEO: The latest results from the Washington Post-ABC News daily tracking poll in less than one minute.

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Sean Sullivan | October 25, 2012