On the first Tuesday of November of 2008, Americans chose Barack Hussein Obama to be the 44th president of the United States. Obama won 53.7 percent of the two-party popular vote, carried 28 states, and captured 365 electoral votes. The morning after, The New York Times proclaimed to the world that Obama had succeeded in “sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease.”
“With ease” overstates the case considerably, but there is no disputing that Obama had won a decisive and historic victory. In the immediate afterglow, some analysts argued that Obama’s election meant that the United States had finally overcome its racial past. The reality was more complicated. Today, three years deep into the Obama presidency, understanding what happened in 2008 serves as the surest guide for thinking about the president’s re-election prospects and the role that race is likely to play in the 2012 contest.
In “The End of Race?,” we show that Obama prevailed in 2008 in spite of his race. Obama suffered substantial loss of support among white voters that, race aside, he would have been expected to win – in much the same way that John Kennedy’s Catholicism cost him support among Protestants in 1960. This was so despite the best efforts of the Obama campaign to neutralize race.
By and large, Obama did not talk about race; did not go out of his way to seek the endorsement of prominent black leaders; spent most of his time in front of white audiences; and avoided the rhetoric of racial grievance. Nevertheless, because Obama embodied blackness, race, as David Remnick put it, “was the thing always present, the thing so rarely mentioned.” Inevitably and inescapably, Obama’s presence activated feelings of racial resentment, and this cost him votes.
At the same time, Obama also gained votes by virtue of his race. Turnout among African Americans was up dramatically in 2008, and since African Americans supported Obama nearly unanimously, this produced a rich harvest of votes for the Democrat.
Taking both the loss of support among whites and the gain in support among blacks into account, we calculate that Obama received roughly 5 percentage points less than he would have on account of his race. Obama should have won nearly 59 percent of the vote. His victory over Sen. McCain should have resembled Ronald Reagan’s landslide defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984.
Obama was elected, of course, but his victory had mostly to do with the electorate’s broad unhappiness with the Bush Administration. Presidential elections are referenda on the incumbent’s performance. Peace and prosperity enhance the incumbent president’s party’s electoral chances; war and recession enhance the chances of the opposition.
In November of 2008, on the eve of the election, after eight years of Republican rule, the American electorate saw, instead of peace, the bleeding war in Iraq, and instead of prosperity, an economic catastrophe. Under these circumstances, the surprise is not that Obama won, but that his victory was not more decisive.
What does this analysis say about 2012? First of all, it is conceivable that prejudice will play a smaller role in 2012 than it did in 2008. Obama is better known, and the country did not turn upside down under his leadership.
On the other hand, there is no evidence that prejudice itself has diminished. White voters have not forgotten that the president is black. And the president’s record – on health care or financial regulation or Iraq – supplies the public with justifications for opposition that some voters may use to camouflage resentments that are actually rooted in race. Prejudice will no doubt work against the president in 2012.
A second implication has to do with turnout. In 2008, Obama profited by a surge in voting among African Americans. Will the Obama campaign be able to duplicate this effort in 2012? Perhaps. But it may prove more difficult to mobilize African Americans on behalf of retaining the first black president in office than it was in placing him in office in the first place. From this point of view, Obama may pay an even steeper race penalty in 2012 than he did in 2008.
A final implication coming out of our analysis of the 2008 election is the reminder that presidential elections generally hinge on performance, economic performance most of all. And in 2012, the economy belongs, in the public’s understanding, to Obama. At the moment, economic conditions are improving. This is especially good news for the president because we know that it is economic change in the election year that drives electoral outcomes.
But will economic conditions continue to improve? Will the European debt crisis be resolved? Will tensions in the Middle-East produce a spike in oil prices? From this perspective, whether the president gets a second term or not depends on events that are still to unfold.
It will also depend on the persistent role of race in American politics. If Barack Obama’s election in 2008 demonstrates how far we have come as a nation, it also reveals, when examined closely, how far we have yet to go.
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