Watching television coverage of the Republican caucuses in Iowa, I noticed that nearly everybody was white: white people smiling over coffee, white people applauding at candidate forums, white people singing praise songs at church. True, Iowa has so few blacks that it would probably take a hawk’s eye to spot one. But the GOP caucuses could have been held in any state, and the crowd would look the same.


Which made me wonder: In a country as large and diverse as ours, how is it that one of the two major political parties has become, in essence, a white people’s party?

The 2011-12 Republican presidential candidates. Herman Cain was the only black candidate in the field. From left, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Pennslyvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn, businessman Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. (John Raoux/AP)

Polls frequently note the overwhelming whiteness of the GOP, but they never quite explain it.

Why is a local columnist writing about the Iowa caucuses? I believe that racial demographics will play a crucial role in the presidential election and that the issue knows no geographical bounds. Read on.

The Pew Research Center did a poll last year that found: “While Republican gains inleaned party identification span nearly all subgroups of whites, they are particularly pronounced among the young and poor.” Another poll found that non-college-educated whites are flocking to the GOP.

But a Gallup poll found that Americans are more likely to blame Republicans than Democrats for the economic crisis, with its high unemployment and rising poverty. It makes no sense to me that the young and poor and working-class would “lean” toward the Republican Party, let along become a member of it. So what is it about being “white” that makes somebody do it?

About 52 percent of white voters identify themselves as Republicans, compared with about 39 percent who say they are Democrats. So clearly not all whites are the same. In Iowa, most white residents claim German ancestry; there are lots of Irish types, too. Does that make a difference?

Looks to me like those who call themselves Republicans have coalesced around nothing more than their whiteness. What else could it be? Certainly not economic self-interest.

Thomas Edsall, a journalism professor at Columbia University, observes that Republican strategists are trying to unify white voters by creating an “us vs. them” racial conflict.

“While the subject of race and of the overwhelmingly white Republican primary electorate are never explicitly discussed by Republican candidates, the issue is subsumed in blatant anti-immigration rhetoric,” Edsall wrote in the New York Times in November.

And, of course, there is that black guy in the White House to blame.

Tuesday, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” which was broadcast from a coffeehouse in Des Moines, one of the guests was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). It was the usual friendly chitchat, with King coming across as a reasonable man carefully considering which presidential candidate to endorse.

Not mentioned, however, was the role King played in making sure that the audience in the background stayed white. Back in 2010, King said President Obama “has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks . . . on the side that favors the black person.” It was then that white voters in Iowa began shifting to the Republican Party.

In addition, a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 56 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of white evangelicals and 61 percent of those who identified with the tea party believe that discrimination against whites is as much of a problem as bigotry against blacks.

So while Wall Street rips off Main Street, Republicans are going around blaming African Americans and Hispanics (especially undocumented immigrants) for the pain and suffering of whites.

Republicans like to point out that about 90 percent of black voters are Democrats and that some of them don’t advance their beliefs or their interests by supporting the Democratic Party. Many black voters are social and fiscal conservatives, they say. There are black evangelicals; black voters who believe that illegal immigrants are taking American jobs; black voters who are opposed to gay marriage; and so forth. Yet they vote with the more liberal major party.

Part of the reason for that loyalty is that Republicans have a “white strategy,” as Edsall calls it, aimed at defeating Obama in part by disenfranchising black voters.

And then there’s the personal element. When black voters, who overwhelming support the president, hear a NASCAR crowd booing first lady Michelle Obama; Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) making crude comments about the first lady’s body; and conservative commentator Brent Bozell saying on Fox News that Obama looks like a “skinny ghetto crackhead,” it’s no wonder they lean toward the Democrats.

Which leaves me to wonder: How could those friendly-looking folks in Iowa be in a nasty old party like that?