In These Primary Numbers, Warnings for the Fall

By Alan Abramowitz
Sunday, May 11, 2008

Whether or not the Democratic primary marathon between two path-breaking candidates has been good for the party or the country, it has clearly been good for people like me: political scientists who study voting behavior. We've been given a data gold mine, the results of an experiment that no one intended to conduct.

Sen. Barack Obama is the all but certain Democratic nominee, but voting patterns in Indiana and North Carolina show that resistance to a black candidate among some white Democrats remains a serious threat to his chances in November:

· As in other recent primaries, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won the large majority of the white vote, and she decisively carried the small towns and rural areas of both states.

· Almost half of the voters in both states indicated that the recent controversy over Obama's former minister, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., was an important factor in their decision.

· Only 51 percent of Clinton voters in Indiana and 49 percent in North Carolina indicated that they would vote for Obama in November.

Obama continues to have particular difficulty with one segment of the Democratic electorate: white working-class voters. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, for example, white Democrats with a college degree preferred Obama to Clinton, 59 to 37 percent. But white Democrats without a college degree preferred Clinton to Obama by a 55 to 36 percent margin.

To some extent, Obama's problems here stem from Clinton's special appeal to one segment of this group, white working-class women. And Democratic candidates have been having problems with lunch-bucket whites for a long time. (Just ask John Kerry.) But there is another reason -- one that many discuss delicately -- why Obama is having difficulty with white working-class voters: race.

Racial attitudes have changed dramatically in the United States over the past several decades, of course, and overtly racist beliefs are much less prevalent among white Americans of all classes today. But a more subtle form of prejudice, which social scientists sometimes call symbolic racism, is still out there -- especially among working-class whites.

Symbolic racism means believing that African American poverty and other problems are largely the result of lack of ambition and effort, rather than white racism and discrimination. Who holds symbolically racist beliefs? A relatively large portion of white voters in general and white working-class voters in particular, according to the 2004 American National Election Study, the best data available on this topic. A few answers underscore how widespread these attitudes are:

· Almost 60 percent of white voters agreed with the statement that "blacks should try harder to succeed." A startling 43 percent of white college graduates nodded at this one, along with 71 percent of whites with no college education.

· Fully 49 percent of white voters disagreed with the statement that "history makes it more difficult for blacks to succeed." Forty percent of white college graduates disagreed with it, along with 58 percent of whites with no college education.

Of course, these results don't mean that Obama won't win over white working-class voters. Many people in that category have been hit especially hard by a stalling economy and rising gas prices, issues that Obama addresses on the stump. And recent polling data show that the large majority of white working-class voters oppose the war in Iraq and disapprove of President Bush's job performance. Democrats must hope that disapproval of Bush could lead working-class voters to begrudgingly approve of a black presidential candidate.

Alan Abramowitz is a professor of political science at Emory University.

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