To many liberals, it seems obvious that Barack Obama’s problems and setbacks– including the resounding Republican victory on November 4th – stem in no small part from racist reaction to his status as the first non-white president in American history. The facts, however, suggest that racial factors contributed far more to Obama’s successes than they did to his failures.
Exit polling reveals the true nature of his decisive triumphs in 2012 and 2008, and the Democrats’ wretched failure in 2014. And the evidence indicates that there’s no basis at all for the smug assumption that once the Dems crawl out from under the burden of a massively unpopular president that they’ll automatically return to their winning ways. Though his critics may find it difficult to accept, the pattern of recent Democratic wins and losses indicates that Obama’s name on the ballot helped Democrats rather than hindering them. Without the president’s near magical ability to rally his base among minorities and the young, his successors may find it impossible to repeat his victories in 2016 and beyond.
To understand the difficulties Dems will face in a post-Obama environment, it’s essential to understand what happened in their recent nationwide wipe-out. Conventional wisdom argues that the main reason the administration and its allies went from champs to chumps involved the “paler and frailer” midterm electorate, with fewer minorities and young people than in the presidential contest of two years before. According to this assumption, reduced participation by blacks, Latinos and under-thirties allowed aging, angry white guys to dominate the Congressional elections and take over the Senate, governorships and state legislatures.
But the numbers indicate that voting goes down for every group in mid-terms – even declining somewhat for older white males. As a result, the percentage of black voters fell by only one point – from 13% in 2012 to 12% in 2014 – hardly a decisive or catastrophic collapse. The overall percentage of white voters increased only modestly in the Republicans’ recent triumph, hardly enough to explain the dramatically different outcomes in the two most recent contests. In 2012, white, non-Hispanic voters comprised 72% of the electorate; this week, in the mid-term elections, they amounted to 75%.
Moreover, among that white majority, Republican candidates in 2014 almost exactly replicated Mitt Romney’s dominance of two years before. The GOP nominee earned 59% of white voters against Barack Obama, while Republican candidates this year got 60%.
The real improvement for the GOP showed up in their electoral performance among non-white voters. Republicans of 2014 nearly doubled Romney’s pathetic 6% share of the black vote. They also significantly increased their percentage of Latino voters: scoring 36% instead of 27%. Most notably, they actually got a full 50% of Asian ballots (while making a major effort to reach out to this growing community), in stark contrast to Romney’s miserable Asian showing of 26% in 2012.
And what about the age factor? It’s true that young people voted at a lower rate in the mid-term elections – they always do when a presidential contest isn’t on the ballot. Among the 2014 electorate, voters below age 30 represented 13% of the total, compared to 19% of all voters in 2012. But similarly striking was the more competitive appeal of Republicans when it came to attracting these youthful citizens, drawing 43% this year instead of 37% just two years ago. Among all other age groups in the population, GOP support almost exactly replicated the results of 2012, so the difference-maker for 2014 wasn’t just that fewer young people showed up, but that Republicans also did much better among those who did.
The improved terrain for conservatives has little to do with the inherent distinction between off-year and presidential races, and everything to do with the identity of Democratic nominees in those races. In the pre-Obama era, a presidential contest didn’t mean an automatic improvement in Democratic ratings among the young and the non-white. A quick look at the two White House contests immediately preceding Obama’s first race, featuring failed Democratic standard-bearers Al Gore and John Kerry, quickly explodes the notion that the somewhat larger electorate in presidential races always tilts in a progressive direction. In fact, Kerry and Gore demonstrated an appeal to minorities and young people that almost exactly anticipated disappointing Democratic strength in the disastrous off-year ballots of 2010 and 2014, and looked nothing at all like the commanding majorities that Barack Obama rolled up among voters of color and those under 30 in his two races for the presidency.
For instance, John Kerry got 88% of the black vote in 2004, an almost identical number to the 89% that Democrats got in this year’s rout, and far less impressive than the 95 and 93% Barack Obama received on the two occasions he ran successfully for the nation’s highest office. Among young people, Kerry drew 54% of voters under thirty—precisely the same percentage as Democratic candidates this year – and way below the 66% Barack Obama won in 2008.
Examination of exit poll data from both presidential and off-year elections since 2000 show very consistent patterns of Democratic and Republican support among young people and voters of color, with two radical departures from that norm: the outliers are the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, with Barack Obama at the head of the ticket.
Those races stand out because Democrats did much better among minorities and the young, and those increased levels of support guaranteed Obama’s victories. In 2012, Obama lost white voters by twenty points, 59 to 39%, but he still prevailed because he won the 28% who considered themselves non-white by margins of more than three to one. In that same re-election contest, the president also lost by a solid margin among the 81% of the electorate over 30, but he swept to victory because the small minority who were under-thirty gave him an edge of 23 points. John Kerry’s advantage among the same age group, voters 18 to 29, was only 8 points so George W. Bush could overwhelm him with his much stronger support from all voters over 50.
In contrast, Barack Obama built up such huge margins among minorities and the young on the two occasions his name actually appeared on the ballot that his Republican rivals couldn’t make up for it with demonstrated strength in the remainder of the population. Barack Obama’s durable popularity with his fellow African-Americans is widely acknowledged, and even the subject of effective parody (see SNL’s fake black public affairs show “How’s He Doing?” as one example.) But his historic status as the first non-white president also gave him a unique and significant bond with Hispanic and Asian voters that his white Democratic successors may prove unable to reproduce. His personal youthfulness also facilitated a special connection with younger voters, helped significantly by the indefinable qualities of hipness and “cool” – characteristics also associated which his identity as a stylish, sophisticated black male.
In his presidential races, Obama did no worse among white voters than his pale-faced Democratic predecessors, but far out-performed them with the young, non-white voters who embraced his candidacy as a generational and ethnic cause. The untold story of 2014 involves Obama’s failure to transfer this distinctive popularity to candidates like Alison Lundergan Grimes or Charlie Crist or Kay Hagan. Of course, he made only limited efforts to deploy the old magic in their behalf, since so many of the Democratic candidates tried to avoid too close a connection to a controversial president.
The question going forward will be whether Hillary Clinton will be able to re-establish the special bond with minorities and the young that Barack Obama so undeniably enjoyed. Preliminary evidence offers scant encouragement for hopeful Democrats: under-‘30’s and non-white voters deserted Hillary en masse in the primary battles of 2008 and gave the Hope-and-Change candidate the party’s nomination. Moreover, in contrast to both Obama and President Bill Clinton, Hillary’s attempts to build her own visceral connection with blacks have proven more embarrassing than effective. Unfortunately for her, there’s widely available tape of her humiliating effort to approximate African-American dialect during a Civil Rights commemoration at a church in Selma, Alabama. And when it comes to the diffident cool that hip-cat Barrack Obama so effortlessly exudes, Hillary has been called many things in her long career but cool and hip are not among them.
These considerations argue that future Democratic campaigns without Obama’s presence as the center of attention will revert to the mean – resembling the failed races of 2000, 2002, 2004, 2010 and 2014, far more than they resemble the exceptional victories of 2008 and 2012. Yes, there was a missing ingredient in the Democratic campaign this year, but it had nothing to do with missing voters who didn’t show up at the polls. It concerned, rather, Barack Obama’s personal absence from the ballot which in two presidential campaigns offered the Democrats a significant advantage which they will never enjoy again.
This column appeared at TruthRevolt.org on November 6, 2014.