A Pew Research Center poll released this week found a racial chasm possibly of historic proportions among white Americans and those of color in their support of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The study found that 57 percent of whites planned to vote for Romney, compared to only 37 percent for Obama. That number would translate into the lowest share of the white vote for a Democrat in a two-person race since Walter F. Mondale received just 35 percent of the vote in 1984. By comparison, in Obama’s 2008 victory, 43 percent of white voters supported him.
Michael Dimock, Pew’s associate director for research, said that white voters without college degrees, who tend to have lower incomes and be more likely to be suffering from sluggish economic growth, accounted for most of Obama’s falloff in the poll.
“Obama’s running about as well among white college graduates as he did four years ago,” Dimock said. “The bigger difference seems to be among less educated whites. It’s almost two-to-one for Romney among the less educated whites.
“There’s a tendency to want to infer a lot of cultural weight to that, but I think, given the circumstances, it’s economic,” said Dimock, downplaying the possibility that the gap presaged any long-term shifts among whites. “College grads have a little more of a cushion in this economy than non-college grads. People who had a problem with Obama’s race, that was already there in ’08. The loss of support? That probably has a lot to do with the economy.”
The findings aren’t particularly surprising, but could play role in next week’s Election Day if Obama supporters don’t head to the polls in the same record numbers as they did in sending him to the White House four years ago.
The Pew poll found the race between the president and former Massachusetts governor to be a statistical dead heat going into the final few days, meaning every vote will count.
But win or lose, it’s clear the Republican Party will have to adjust to the nation’s fast-changing demographics if it wants to remain politically viable in the future. A fast-growing Latino population means that people of color will soon become the majority in America, so the GOP will no longer be able to be content going without any support from black, Latino and Asian-American voters.
But the high level of racial polarization reflected in pre-election polls also hints at dangers for Democrats. Predictions that Republicans will suffer from an increasingly diverse population rest on the assumption that many white voters will continue to vote Democratic. But if this year’s surveys showing three of every five whites supporting Romney prove accurate, and are a harbinger of long-term trends, falling support from whites could outpace Democratic gains among minorities.
“Both outcomes are possible,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. “The Democrats have a huge problem among white voters, and it seems to be increasing. And whites remain the majority of voters in the United States.”
Even if Romney ekes out a victory, it may be the last one the GOP can wring from the white coalition that has carried the party to the presidency in seven of the last 11 elections, analysts said. This election is the “last hurrah for whites,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan think tank.
In Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and other battleground states, minority voting-eligible populations have surged since 2008, according to Frey’s analysis, trends that are expected to accelerate.
But while the Republican ticket may attract greater white support this year than John McCain did in 2008, Democrats are hoping that boost will be concentrated in Southern states, where it won’t help. Romney could run up the score among white voters in those states, but since he is likely to win their electoral votes anyway, increasing his total number of white votes there won’t help him win the election.
Dimock said that because the economic recovery has been uneven geographically, and white voters are an extremely heterogeneous category, it was plausible to think Obama’s losses among whites will not be evenly distributed.
For now, members of racial and ethnic minority groups make up about a quarter of the national electorate, and polls show Obama far ahead. Obama maintains an overwhelming lead among blacks, according to polls, and a smaller margin among Asian-Americans. Among Hispanics, he led 69 percent to 21 percent, according to a Pew Hispanic Center poll earlier this month.
Since winning the nomination, the Romney campaign has campaigned for Latino votes with elected Latino Republican officials like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, but to little avail.