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Race is a hot-button issue in 2012

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Race is a hot-button issue in 2012

A hanging effigy that looked suspiciously like President Obama on a flatbed truck in New York City and the sign on the Peach Oyster Bar in Unincorporated Draketown, Ga., “I do not support the N… in the White House” normally could be written off by now as the pro-forma crackpot bigotry of the professional Obama loathers.

Not a week goes by without some juvenile demonstration of their fear, hatred and ignorance toward the president. But what set off a bell is that New York City is a Democratic party bastion, and there is some faint hope that Obama might be competitive in Georgia this election year. But the racial outburst in these places points to a danger that could cause damage to Obama’s presidential drive in 2012. That’s the absolute refusal of some otherwise rock-solid white Democrats to back him.

This was confirmed late last year in a Harvard study that found that race cost Obama 3 to 5 percentage points of the popular vote in the 2008 election. Put another way without the racial animus, Obama would have routed GOP presidential foe John McCain in the popular vote. The percentage drop-off wasn’t just bipartisan but was heavily weighted toward Democrats who simply stayed home rather than vote for Obama.

Obama fortunately didn’t need their votes. The stratospheric turnout among blacks, young people and the majority support he got from centrist independents offset the defecting white Democrats. He also got a huge boost from widespread GOP disaffection, and even disgust, from many in the GOP due to Bush, the GOP’s dismal record on the economy, two wars, GOP sex and corruption scandals, and due to McCain’s pick of Palin as his vice-president running mate.

But those overwhelmingly favorable conditions for Obama aren’t there in 2012. He will again get an off-the-charts percentage of black votes, a decisive majority of Hispanic votes and a significant majority of the youth and women’s vote. But the election won’t be decided solely on percentages, it will be decided on numbers. He got them in 2008. But this time around with a relatively unified and motivated GOP, Obama will need insurance. The insurance is a unified Democratic Party; the majority of those are still centrist white Democrats.

Obama simply can’t afford a repeat of what happened in the Democratic primaries in 2008. In the Democratic primary in Ohio, Obama’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton beat him out, and she did it mainly with white votes. But that wasn’t the whole story. Nearly one-quarter of whites in Ohio flatly said race did matter in voting. Presumably that meant that they would not vote for a black candidate no matter how politically attractive or competent he was.

Four years later, the warning sign is still there that an undetermined number of white conservative Democrats have not relented one bit in their racial hostility toward Obama. In recent interviews with Democratic voters in Ohio, a small number flatly said they still wouldn’t vote for him, and race was the reason. If even a small percentage of them meant it, the result could be a percentage point or two, dropped from his Democratic vote total. This could be devastating in a state where the race is projected to be close and absolutely crucial for either Obama or Romney to win.

Ohio is hardly a special case. An equally strong hint that defecting white Democrats could pose a danger for Obama came in Pennsylvania’s primary in 2008. A huge percent of Pennsylvania voters are blue collar, anti-big government, socially conservative, pro-defense and intently patriotic — and there’s a tormenting history of a racial polarization in the state. If Obama had not decisively won the state’s two big, racially diverse cities primarily with black and youth votes, Clinton would have trounced Obama by an even wider margin than she did.

The same percent of white Democrats as in Ohio told exit poll interviewers that they would not back Obama. Race was the prime reason. Clinton racked up victories in the West Virginia, Kentucky and South Dakota primaries. Again, a significant percent of white Democrats said they would not back Obama, and the reason was race and many made no effort to hide it.

In an AP-Yahoo poll, one-third of white Democrats said they had negative views of blacks. “Violent,” “lazy,” “boastful,” “complaining” and “irresponsible” were the terms many used to describe blacks. More than 40 percent of them said they would not back Obama.

Many of them ultimately did swallow whatever racial reservations they had about Obama and voted for him. The prospect of a continuation of Bush policies under another GOP White House regime was just too much for them to stomach. But four years later, there’s no Bush to kick around, and with a still very problematic economy, this could be tipping points for many white Democrats who still can’t totally reconcile themselves to Obama. They could spell bigger danger to Obama than Romney.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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