The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama experiencing a steep drop
in support among white voters from four years ago.

At this stage in 2008, Obama trailed Republican John McCain by seven percentage points among white voters. Even in victory, Obama ended up losing white voters by 12 percentage points, according to that year’s exit poll.

But now, Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll. That presents a significant hurdle for the president — and suggests that he will need to achieve even larger margins of victory among women and minorities, two important parts of the Democratic base, to win reelection.

Overall, Romney has edged ahead in the contest, garnering 50 percent of likely voters for the first time in the campaign, according to the Post-ABC poll. As Romney hits 50 percent, the president stands at 47 percent, his lowest tally since before the national party conventions.

The three-point edge gives Romney his first apparent — but not statistically significant — advantage in the national popular vote. The challenger has a clear nine-point lead when it comes to whom voters trust to handle the economy, which has long been the central issue of the contest. He has also effectively neutralized what has been a consistent fallback for Obama: economic empathy. 

Exit poll results from two previous presidential elections compared to the Post-ABC tracking poll of likely voters supporting the Democratic candidate. (By The Washington Post/The Washington Post-ABC tracking poll)

Romney’s momentum in these areas comes from improvements against the president among white voters.

The slippage among whites is something of a setback for Obama, who campaigned on bridging the racial divide in his election and has sought to minimize rifts that have arisen in his presidency. Although Democrats typically win minorities and fare worse among white voters than their Republican rivals, Obama outpaced previous losing Democratic candidates with both groups.

Less than two weeks before the election, the evidence suggests that a much more sharply divided country will head to the polls.

As he did in 2008, Obama gets overwhelming support from nonwhites, who made up a record high proportion of the overall electorate four years ago.

In that contest, 80 percent of all nonwhites supported Obama, including 95 percent of black voters, according to the exit poll. In the Post-ABC tracking poll released Thursday, Obama again draws support from 80 percent of nonwhites, and backing for his reelection is nearly universal among African Americans. In other words, Romney appears to have made no inroads in chipping away at Obama’s support among Hispanics and African Americans.

Dismal support for Republicans among minorities is a long-term problem for the GOP in a rapidly diversifying nation. Fully 91 percent of Romney’s support comes from white voters.

At the same time, Democrats cannot count on the share of the white vote continuing to drop as it has in recent years. The share of white voters in the Post-ABC polling is similar to what it was in 2008, when whites made up a record-low 74 percent of all voters.

The erosion of support Obama has experienced since his muted performance in the first presidential debate has been particularly acute among white men, whites without college degrees and white independents, the new tracking poll found.

Nearly half of all of those who supported Obama in 2008 but now say they back Romney are white independents. Overall, whites make up more than 90 percent of such vote “switchers.”

Romney’s advantage here comes even as 48 percent of white voters in the tracking data released Monday said Romney, as president, would do more to favor the wealthy; 37 percent said he would do more for the middle class. Most whites, with and without college educations, saw Obama as doing more to favor those in the middle, not the wealthy.

There is no way to tell from these findings what role, if any, racial prejudice may play on either side of the racial gap. But the data suggest that concern about the economy is amplifying the division, as Obama’s decline in support among white voters appears to be closely linked to views of his handling of the economy. And yet minorities have suffered severe unemployment and housing foreclosures in the current economy as well.

Asked about declining support for Obama among white voters — and about the percentage of such voters necessary for victory — Obama spokesman Adam Fetcher said only that Obama would be better for middle-class voters than Romney.

“Middle-class Americans, regardless of age, gender or race, have a clear choice in this election. Whether it’s on the stump or by mobilizing grass-roots volunteers in neighborhoods across the country, President Obama is working to tell every American about his concrete, detailed plan to move America forward, get folks back to work and strengthen the middle class,” he said.

The national polling data do mask important regional differences.

Even though Obama lost white voters overall in 2008, he won 50 percent or more of their votes in 18 states and the District.

And some state-by-state polling has indicated that Obama is performing better among white voters in key states he needs to collect the 270 electoral college votes to win reelection.

In Ohio this year, he trails Romney by six percentage points among whites in a new poll by Time magazine, far under his margin nationally. In Ohio, Romney is winning white men by nearly 20 points, 56 percent to 38 percent, but white women are breaking narrowly for the president, 49 percent to 43 percent.

Obama won in 2008 in part by raising his support among minority voters — and boosting the percentage of minorities who voted. But it also came by outperforming past Democratic candidates among whites.

In capturing 43 percent of the white vote for president, Obama performed better than any Democrat since Bill Clinton, who won 43 percent in a three-way split in 1996. Clinton’s effort had represented the best effort for a Democrat among white voters in two decades.

Those gains appear likely to be erased this year.

In a rapidly diversifying country, the percentage of the nation’s population that is white drops 2 percent every four years, said David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And even among white voters, Republicans perform best among older voters, who will age out of the voting rolls in coming years.

Without improving tallies with minorities, Bositis said, “I think this will be the peak for Republicans.”

“The formula they have right now is a long-term loser,” he said.

In 1988, the last time there was such a prominent racial gap, white voters sided with George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis by 59 percent to 40 percent, with nonwhites breaking 78 percent to 20 percent for the Democrat. Were Obama to slip into the 30s among white voters this year, it would be the first time for a Democrat in a two-way race since Walter Mondale did so in 1984, losing white voters to President Ronald Reagan by 64 percent to 35 percent.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.