The Divide Among Whites

White America is divided between those who are comfortable with the influx of immigrants from other countries and those who feel they threaten the American way of life.


Obama’s race was a polarizing issue in the last presidential election and exacerbated an already existing divide between Republicans and Democrats. Opposition to Obama at time took the form of a resurgence of nativism targeting non-whites and others who were perceived as foreign. After the election, as Ron Brownstein notes, prominent democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg characterized democratic voters as essentially a coalition of non-whites and whites who are comfortable with them. Now Brownstein finds evidence that in a recent Pew Center study that this is still the case.

The Pew study found that non-Hispanic whites are split almost evenly between those who agree and those who disagree with the statement that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries are a threat to traditional American customs and values.” That many whites would be uncomfortable with the country’s changing demographics is not particularly surprising, since whites are shrinking rapidly as a percentage of the population, and are not likely remain the majority much longer.

As Brownstein notes, whether whites agreed with that statement was closely tied to which candidate and which party they said they preferred in 2012. The Pew survey found that 45% of the whites who said they were comfortable with immigration approve of the job Obama is doing as president, while only half that many of the whites who worry about the effect of immigration on the country approve of the job Obama is doing. Even more striking was that in a hypothetical presidential contest between Obama and Mitt Romney, 52% of the whites who were comfortable with immigration preferred Obama, while 72% of the whites who worry about the effect immigration is having preferred Romney—a margin of almost three to one.

As Brownstein says, this doesn’t mean that the opposition to Obama is ultimately about race or immigration. The divide among whites is almost certainly at least in part a symptom of other demographic differences. Among other things, the divide among whites is tied to an enormous gap between young Americans, who as a group are ethnically diverse and overwhelmingly favor Obama, and older Americans, who are predominantly white and largely favor Romney. In the short term, of course, Obama and the Democrats’ chances probably hinge more than anything else on the state of the economy. But race is likely to remain a central issue in the next campaign. And, in the long term, as I have written before, the fact that Republican voters are older and more white means that demographic trends strongly favor Democrats.

Photo: Pete Souza

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