Obama's Candidacy Underscores Crosscurrents of Race and Politics

Yet the views of these whites are counterbalanced by the preferences of the most racially sensitive whites, a smaller group (21 percent of whites) but broadly pro-Obama. These are whites who have a black friend, who think blacks in their area suffer discrimination and report no personal feelings of prejudice; they support Obama by 55-36 percent.

The middle group, half of all whites, fall between the low and high racial sensitivity groups; they favor McCain by 54-36 percent – not quite as broadly as the low-sensitivity group, albeit still by a substantial margin.

The classifications appear robust: Being a member of either the low- or high-sensitivity group predicts whether a white American will support Obama or McCain, even when other factors, such as partisanship, ideology, demographics and issue preferences are held constant. Being in the middle group independently predicts candidate support when compared with higher-sensitivity whites, but not compared with low-sensitivity whites.

Compared with the high-sensitivity group, low-sensitivity whites include more conservatives, Republicans, senior citizens and Catholics; the high-sensitivity group for its part includes greater shares of 18- to 29-year-olds, liberals and secular adults. While the low-sensitivity group is both larger and more pro-McCain than the high-sensitivity group is pro-Obama, these other factors are part of the reason, not racial sensitivity alone.

WHITE VOTE – Obama's standing among whites overall is about average for a Democratic presidential candidate, although there's been quite a range. As noted, whites favor McCain by a 12-point margin, 51-39 percent. It's hard to attribute that to race; George W. Bush won whites over John Kerry by a broader margin, 58-41 percent, and over Al Gore by 54-42 percent. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush won whites by anywhere from 19 to 29 points in 1980, '84 and '88, according to exit polls.

That said, it's the Democrats who've done better with whites who've won presidential elections – Jimmy Carter, who lost whites by just 5 points in 1976, and Bill Clinton, who came within 1 point of Bush among whites in 1992 and within 3 points vs. Bob Dole in 1996. That's no surprise, since whites constitute a large majority of voters, albeit a shrinking one – 77 percent in 2004, vs. 90 percent in 1976.

BLACK VOTE – Blacks, meanwhile, remain fairly monolithic in terms of presidential preferences – not because there's a black candidate, but because they're the single most loyal Democratic voting bloc. Ninety percent of blacks support Obama, just as 88 percent backed Kerry in 2004 and 90 percent voted for Gore in 2000.

A bigger question for African-Americans is not the direction but the size of their vote; they've accounted for 8 to 11 percent of voters since 1976, about their share of the adult population. With a black candidate leading the Democratic ticket, black turnout might rise disproportionately in a show of affinity voting.

But it might not; indeed that did not happen during the Democratic primaries. Turnout was up across the board, and blacks, like other Democrats, increased their participation. But blacks did not vote in disproportionately greater numbers: They accounted for 19 percent of all Democratic primary voters, about the average for Democratic primaries in past years.

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