Will race tip the balance?

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 21, 2012

Last month, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Obama up on Romney among black voters 94 percent to zero. Yes, zero. And the same survey gave the president a two-to-one advantage among Latino voters.

Romney led among white voters 53-40. But that's not enough to put the Republican over the top.

Journalist Ronald Brownstein, in a recent piece for the National Journal, laid out the racial calculus in blunt terms: assuming Obama wins 80 percent of minority voters, as he did in 2008, Romney has to take 61 percent of the white vote to eke out a majority.

That's no small task. And Romney may have to do even better than that. The 61 percent figure only holds if whites make up 74 percent of the electorate this time out, as they did in 2008. And whites have been declining as a share of the electorate in every presidential election since 1992.

Team Obama is well aware of this reality and is waging a campaign built on turning out several key demographics — women and young people, yes, but also Latinos.

"The Latino vote is the crucial group in this election," says Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor now with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's highly concentrated in several of the swing states . . . Florida, Colorado, Nevada."

The challenge, here, is that historically Latinos have turned out in smaller numbers than white and black voters. Obama has to energize this demographic. Little wonder that he announced a policy giving young illegal immigrants a reprieve from deportation just months before the election.

Race, if you look closely enough, is something like the defining issue — or, at least, the defining tool — in the presidential election. The only question is: who will exploit it more skillfully?

And here lies the real damage in the recently released video of Romney declaring, at a high-dollar fundraiser, that the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes are dependent moochers.

It reinforced a broader narrative that the candidate looks down on blue-collar voters — including the white, blue-collar voters he is targeting with his racially charged messaging; the voters he so desperately needs to inch up his white vote total to 61 percent; the voters he needs to tip the balance.


If it's still possible for the GOP to win this kind of race — to ride an overwhelmingly white coalition to victory — it won't be for long. "This," a GOP strategist told Brownstein for the National Journal article, "is the last time anyone will try to do this."

The minority share of the electorate jumps two percent every presidential election. And a long-building, Democratic majority of blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and left-leaning, educated whites — a lot of overlap, here, with Tesler's "racial liberals" — is finally reaching critical mass.

Indeed, the emergence of this bloc probably had more to do with Obama's first election than "hope" and "change."

The president's story, which once seemed so unique — which still seems so unique — could replicate itself sooner than we might imagine.

And if the new wave of black and brown leaders won't operate in a post-racial America, they'll face a racial politics that looks a lot different than it once did.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.

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