Issues matter more than race in elections

President Obama, here embracing Hurricane Sandy victim Donna Vanzant in Brigantine, N.J., is expected to get 90 percent of the black vote and 70 percent of the Hispanic tally. (AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Race has been a factor in American politics ever since the Constitution said three-fifths of the slave population would be counted in determining each state’s delegation to the House of Representatives.

After the Civil War, the Republican Party benefited from blacks’ adoration of the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, to reap votes. Franklin Roosevelt was beloved for his New Deal, but many African Americans continued to vote Republican until 1948, when Democrat Harry Truman, who had integrated the armed forces, pushed for a civil rights bill.

Truman raised the ire of Southern Democrats, who formed their own party dedicated to states’ rights — the most important right being the subjugation of African Americans. They were called the Dixiecrats, and are worth a history lesson now because their legacy is a factor in the racially polarized politics we have now.

The Dixiecrats’ descendants have mostly joined the GOP. They will say they didn’t leave the Democratic Party; the party left them. And to a large degree, they’re right. As the Democratic Party became more inclined to take liberal positions favored by African Americans on issues such as school integration and affirmative action, the Republican Party became more conservative.

That division has benefitted both parties. Republicans devised the so-called Southern strategy, which lavished most of its attention on white voters. The strategy has been given credit by some political analysts for electing the last four GOP presidents who ran for that office. (Gerald Ford didn’t run.)

On the other side of the coin, Democratic presidential candidates have been able to count on most African Americans’ voting for them. Given that reality, President Obama would likely be polling nicely among black voters even if he were white. But as an African American Democrat, polls show him supported by up to 92 percent of black voters.

Such blanket support has Republicans like former White House chief of staff John Sununu saying it’s all about skin color. He later retracted his allegation that Colin Powell had endorsed Obama just because he’s black. Sununu should know that if race alone determined whom blacks support, black Republicans would benefit, too. Most don’t, because they’re wrong on the issues.

Another demographic offers additional evidence of that fact. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll shows Obama getting 70 percent of the Hispanic vote. The president isn’t Latino; he’s garnering that level of support because, even though he’s cracked down on illegal aliens, he offers a better chance for immigration reform than Mitt Romney.

Race still matters in American politics, but the issues matter more. While Obama stands to gain the most minority votes, polls show him with only about 36 percent of the white vote — seven points less than what he received in 2008. Among white voters, no doubt some would never vote for a black candidate for president or anything else. But especially among those who voted for Obama four years ago, most simply disagree with him on the issues.