The American Debate: Counting down to Decision Day

As white support declines, Obama refocuses message

On the campaign trail: President Obama (left) and Mitt Romney

Excuse me for raising a sensitive subject, but reality requires it: The reelection of America's first black president is imperiled because he's doing so badly with white voters.

I won't dwell on whether, or to what degree, his white deficit may be attributable to overt or unconscious racism. That debate is ongoing, and I'll leave it to others. Today, I'm simply interested in the racial math. The math alone tells us plenty about Barack Obama's prospects - and about how heavily he's banking on minorities to propel him across the finish line.

America is more racially diverse than ever, and that accelerating trend will resonate politically in the 21st century. Down the road, the overwhelmingly white GOP may find itself on the wrong side of history. But the big question in this election is whether the diverse Democratic electorate is sizable enough, and motivated enough, to get Obama rehired.

It's sad, but inescapable, that we have to crunch the numbers on the basis of race. Four years ago Obama drew 43 percent of the white vote, an impressive share for any Democrat - two points higher than John Kerry in 2004, a point higher than Al Gore in 2000, and the same share that Bill Clinton garnered in 1996 - but 43 percent looks like a pipe dream in 2012. The latest polls place Obama at 38 percent.

That's very dicey territory; the consensus is that a competitive Democrat needs, at minimum, 40 percent of the white vote. Obama is trying to clear that hurdle, by targeting two white subconstituencies: professional, college-educated women (which is why he keeps linking Mitt Romney to the conservatives' positions on health issues) and blue-collar whites in key swing states such as Ohio (where Romney has been relentlessly painted as an elitist private-equity guy who can't connect with the average Joe).

But with so little room to maneuver among whites, Obama has no choice but to maximize turnout among nonwhites in the handful of states still up for grabs. He must fashion a rainbow coalition - make a virtue out of a necessity. And that tells us so much about where he has been lately, what he has said, and what his people have been doing in the field.

The task is not impossible. Thirty years ago, minority voters were 11 percent of the electorate; in 2008, they were 26 percent, and their share (if motivated by Obama) may be even higher next week. One community has been largely responsible for the steady minority rise - as Obama himself acknowledged in swing-state Iowa the other day:

"I will just be very blunt. Should I win a second term, a big reason I will win a second term is because the Republican nominee and the Republican Party have so alienated the fastest-growing demographic group in the country, the Latino community."

True enough. At last glance, polls reported that Obama is outpacing Romney among Latino voters by 45 percentage points. That would be a big boost from 2008, when Obama beat John McCain among Latinos by 36 points. Indeed, a number of once-reliable Republican states - notably Florida, Colorado, Virginia, and Nevada - are swing states today because Democratic-leaning Latino voters are far more populous than ever before. And Romney did himself no favors by insisting, during the GOP primary season, that undocumented immigrants should "self-deport" back to where they came from, and that he opposed the idea of giving the children of those immigrants a path to citizenship.

Obama is competitive in that quartet of states because of the heavy Latino presence. No wonder he's spending so much time there. He won all four in 2008 in part because of Latinos (in Florida, thanks to non-Cuban Latinos). The flip side, however, is that 2012 is not 2008, and Latinos - whose share of the overall electorate is always smaller than their eligible numbers - are just as dispirited as everyone else about the sluggish economy. Obama's tepid white support puts more pressure on his Latino ground game. A lopsided polling advantage over Romney means nothing unless Latinos can be cajoled to vote en masse.

Obama arguably has less of a problem motivating the African American community but, there, too, the ground game will be crucial in maximizing turnout. And in Ohio, the ultimate swing state, Obama's people had to bring in the lawyers. Just as the Republican administration in Pennsylvania sought to dampen minority turnout by enacting a law (now in limbo) that required a photo ID, the GOP regime in Ohio repeatedly sought to hamper or halt early voting - an option particularly popular among minorities.

Here's the gist: African American churchgoers in Columbus (the state capital) like to vote on the final Sunday, right after church service, but Ohio officials tried to ban it - and tried to curb early voting in the evenings, as well - insisting that access should be granted only to members of the military. The Obama campaign sued in federal court, and won. Ohio officials took it to the federal appeals court, and again Obama won. Ohio officials took it to the U.S. Supreme Court several weeks ago, and again Obama won. This episode illustrates how intensely the Obama campaign, four years removed from "hope" and "change," has been forced to grind out every detail.

Republicans were not exactly coy about their tactics; as one key GOP official, headquartered in Columbus, said in August, "We shouldn't contort the voting process to accommodate the urban - read African American - voter-turnout machine." The message was obvious. Just as Obama needs to maximize minority turnout to compensate for his weak showing among whites, Republicans have to dampen minority turnout to best leverage their strong showing among whites.

This cleaving of the electorate along racial lines does not flatter us. But, as the political humorist Finley Peter Dunne quipped a century ago, "Politics ain't beanbag." Politics is about winning in the short run, by whatever grim math can be brought to bear. Obama, who aspired to be postracial, and whose career now hangs in the balance, has no choice but to play the same kind of game.


Dick Polman can be reached at and followed on Twitter @dickpolman1.