The Role of Race

Feb 15, 2008 9:35am

Race has been a riveting factor in the Democratic presidential primaries; even beyond sex, age and socioeconomics, it looks to be the single most powerful demographic in vote choices – at least for nonwhites.

Witness New Mexico, which Hillary Clinton last night was announced to have won by a razor-thin 1,709 votes – despite losing white voters there by a 12-point margin. The reason: her 26-point victory among Hispanics.

I wrote last week about white men as a swing group; it proved out in Virginia and Maryland. But differing vote preferences between African-Americans and Hispanics are essential as well, and especially worth evaluating with an eye toward the Texas primary ahead.

There is some tension here. In aggregate exit poll data from the Super Tuesday states, just 3 percent of whites called the race of the candidate “the single most important factor” in their vote; that rose to 12 percent among Hispanics. Voters in both those groups favored Clinton by roughly 3-1 margins, 73-22 percent among whites, 72-27 percent among Hispanics – in both cases, better for Clinton than she did among whites and Hispanics who gave less importance to the candidates’ race.

Among black voters, 6 percent called race the single top factor and 83 percent of them went for Obama, but so did 82 percent of all other blacks.

Obama surprised Clinton among Hispanics in Virginia this week, seemingly beating her by 54-46 percent; that only happened previously in Connecticut, 53-43 percent. In fact, though, the sample size in both states was too small for reliable analysis, and the difference between the candidates was within sampling tolerances.

More reliable is the overall result among Hispanics: Across all primaries to date, Clinton’s won them by 61-34 percent. Her 67 percent support from Hispanics in California (where Obama won white men by 20 points) and by 55 percent in Arizona (where white men split evenly) were crucial to her winning those states. New Mexico’s the latest example.

As with whites, socioeconomic status plays into the Hispanic vote. Clinton has done 10 points better among Hispanics who don’t have a college degree (65-32 percent, vs. 55-42 percent among Hispanic college graduates) and among those with less than $50,000 in family incomes (67-30, vs. 57-40 percent among better-off Hispanics). She’s helped in this population by the fact that Hispanic voters are less likely to be college graduates (32 percent vs. 39 percent of blacks and 54 percent of whites) and more apt than whites to have incomes under $50,000 (49 percent of Hispanics vs. 33 percent of whites.)

Clinton’s done 11 points better with Hispanic women (66-31 percent over Obama) than with Hispanic men (55-39 percent). Among whites, she's won women overall by 59-34 percent, but managed only a dead heat among men, 45-44 percent.

Among blacks, meanwhile, the surge to Obama since December has been remarkable. In the last pre-primary ABC News/Washington Post poll last year, Clinton led Obama among blacks by 52-39 percent. That changed after Obama established his credentials by winning Iowa; across all primaries to date he’s won African-Americans by 79-17 percent.

Whites have accounted for 61 percent of Democratic primary voters; 20 percent have been blacks, ranging from a low of 1 percent in New Hampshire to a high of 55 percent in South Carolina. Hispanics have accounted for 14 percent overall, peaking at 35 percent in New Mexico and 30 percent in California, where their turnout was up sharply from 16 percent in 2004. The Texas primary is March 4; in 2004 Hispanics accounted for 24 percent of Democratic primary voters there, blacks, 21 percent.

All these number stand in sharp contrast to the Republican primaries, in which voters have been divided much more by religious belief (evangelical vs. non-evangelical) and ideology. There’s good reason race hasn’t been a factor: Whites have accounted for 88 percent of Republican primary voters, compared with 61 percent of Democrats. Hispanics, at 6 percent of GOP voters, are less than half as prevalent in the Republican ranks as in the Democratic. And blacks, two in 10 Democratic voters, account for just 3 percent of Republicans in this year's primaries.

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