Note: a version of this piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal on May 27, 2014.
Evidence from exit polling strongly suggests that Barack Obama’s two presidential victories relied on race-based bloc voting that no Democratic nominee could readily replicate in 2016.
This analysis, of course, directly contradicts one of the core assumptions of the left-leaning commentariat, which considers it an article of faith that the president’s racial identity hurts him more than it helps him with the electorate at large. Democrats instinctively blame any and all criticism of their leader on the racism of white voters and support this view by citing the big white majorities won by both his Republican rivals. In the historic election of 2008, whites still comprised 74% of the overall electorate and preferred McCain-Palin over Obama-Biden by a landslide margin of 57% to 43%. For Chris Matthews and his horrified liberal colleagues, this rejection could only reflect deep-seated bias on the part of the rejectionists.
“He’s the perfect husband, the perfect father, the perfect American,” Mr. Matthews enthused on MSNBC in the heat of the 2012 re-election campaign. “And all they do is trash the guy. And it’s impossible for me to believe they would have said the same things about a Walter Mondale or a Jimmy Carter or a Bill Clinton. There’s an ethnic piece to this.”
This endlessly recycled claim ignores an inconvenient truth: No Democratic nominee since the Ford-Carter election of 1976 got a higher percentage of white voters than did Mr. Obama in 2008. In 1996, Bill Clinton equaled Mr. Obama’s share of the white electorate (the candidates drew an identical 43%) but no Democratic nominee in the 45 years of modern exit polling has actually won a white majority. Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 both drew smaller shares of the white vote (42% and 41%, respectively) than did the first black candidate in 2008.
Mr. Obama fared noticeably worse among white voters in 2012 than in 2008, winning only 39%. But this weaker showing surely reflected disappointment with his performance in office more than some sudden, inexplicable explosion of racial prejudice. Bigots who couldn’t accept the idea of a black president would have felt more motivated to turn out to prevent one from capturing the White House in the first place, rather than waiting until 2012 to express their disapproval.
Mr. Obama’s percentage of the black vote remained virtually unchanged between 2008 (95%) and 2012 (93%) while his support from Latinos and Asians actually ticked upward—to 71% from 68%, and 73% from 64% of those ethnic groups, respectively. Those increases may have stemmed from Mitt Romney’s perceived hostility to immigrants (especially when compared with John McCain, a prominent supporter of immigration reform), but it still left Mr. Obama with the highest-ever levels of nonwhite support.
Had the president achieved anything less than those crushing majorities among non-white voters, had his support among minorities resembled the “normal” levels that characterized nearly all his Democratic predecessors, the outcome of the election could have been profoundly different. John Kerry, the last candidate of the party’s pre-Obama era, received 88% of the black vote, 53% of Hispanics, 56% of Asians and 54% of those who identified themselves as “other.” With these margins in 2012, Mr. Obama would have lost the popular vote. More remarkably, he would have lost decisively in the Electoral College. If Mr. Romney had earned his national percentage of the white vote (59%) with white California voters—and if he had secured the same percentages among blacks, Latinos and Asians in California that George W. Bush won nationally in 2008—he would have carried the Golden State in 2012.
In this scenario, Mr. Romney’s margin in the most diverse major state in the country would have been razor thin—49.15% to Mr. Obama’s 48.25%—assuming that 2.6% of votes still went to minor party candidates. Still, the lesson of this exercise is a sobering one, especially for Democrats. Without Mr. Obama’s overwhelming margins among minorities, even the bluest of blue states could have been in play. Without his powerful race-based appeal, a future Democratic nominee might fall back to a less lop-sided share of the non-white vote, following partisan patterns established over the course of a quarter century.
With no special appeal to minorities in 1996, Bob Dole won 12% of the black vote. This was twice the share won by either of Mr. Obama’s Republican rivals—even though Mr. Dole’s opponent Bill Clinton had been celebrated throughout his career for his popularity among African-Americans. A competitive Republican candidate need only equal the performance among minorities of such conventional standard bearers as Messrs. Bush and Dole, still ceding Democrats two-thirds (or less) of the growing, non-white segment of the electorate. Without a barrier-breaking black candidate, and without the three-fourths of voters of color that Obama delivered in 2008 and 2012, the Democratic electoral edge all but disappears in 2016. This means that if the next GOP nominee can come close to duplicating Mr. Romney’s decisive advantage with white voters, even enthusiastic minority turnouts wouldn’t prevent the Republican from recapturing the White House.