The 2012 elections may be largely about race. While the state of the economy may ultimately determine whether Obama wins or loses, the rhetoric in both the presidential and congressional campaigns is likely to be very racially charged.
Part of the reason, of course, is that Obama—America’s first black president—is running for reelection. Some voters will inevitably support him because of his race, and others inevitably oppose him. The fact that Obama was able to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 reflected the fact that the American electorate is rapidly changing and increasingly non-white. Obama’s nomination and ultimate election led the two major parties to emphasize their differences on racial issues. And those racial divisions are likely to just get sharper, no matter who the Republicans nominate next year.
As Ronald Brownstein writes, America’s demographic makeup is changing rapidly. The recent census found that the overall share of the non-Hispanic white population fell from 69.1% in 2000 to just 63.7% in 2010. At the current rate of growth whites will no longer be a majority of children under 18 as soon as 2015. In the not-too-distant future, whites will actually be a minority of the U.S. population—even if they are likely to be the largest minority for the foreseeable future.
That’s likely to be a huge advantage for Obama and the Democrats. As Adam Serwer says, Republicans had a choice in 2008. They could attempt to compete with Obama and the Democrats for minority votes, or they could emphasize their advantage among white voters to try to beat him. Their decision to court white voters at the expense of minority voters—by pushing for harsh immigration laws or playing on birther fears that Obama is not really American—may have made sense in the short term. A recent Pew poll found that Obama’s approval among whites was just 38%—8 points lower than among the population as a whole.
But in the longer term Republican Party has turned away the voters it will need to win elections in the future, and seems to have committed itself to a strategy that will require it to win an extremely high percentage of the white vote. It’s not true, as Jim Newell suggests, that Obama can simply “ignore white voters,” but if Obama is able to win anything close to the 80% of minority votes that he won in 2008, the Republicans are in trouble.