by Ralph Brauer | 11/14/2008 01:16:00 PM

Overlooked in the current excitement over Barack Obama's victory is not only the fact that he is the nation's first person of color to become President, but he is also only the second President to be elected even though he received a minority of the white vote. In short, people of color elected Barack Obama.


The first person to be elected President with a minority of the white vote was Bill Clinton in 1992. He received 39% of the white vote to George H. W. Bush's 40%, hardly an overwhelming difference, but the harbinger of things to come. In 1996 that margin increased as Clinton lost the white vote to Bob Dole 46% to 43%. In both those elections Bill Clinton piled up African American percentages in the 80s and Latino percentages of 61 and 72. Dole and Bush both won a majority of Asian Americans. To their discredit, the pollsters do not seem to recognize Native Americans in the polling results. For poll data comes from the New York Times which has the best online historical comparison tables.

Barack Obama trounced Clinton's results. This year 55% of white voters supported John McCain compared with 43% for Barack Obama. Yet McCain lost with Obama winning the popular vote with 53% to 46%. It is those numbers that make 2008 a watershed election that portends a radical change in the American electorate and American politics.

The Denigration of "Minorities"

The popularly accepted term for people of color used to be "minorities." That was the expression that appeared in official documents, statistics, history books, and the media. Questionnaires would ask, "Are you a member of a minority group?" Schools would record the percentage of "minorities" in their attendance data. Exit polls and pollsters would speak of the "minority vote." In essence the word quickly became an acceptable form of the n-word.

In fact as we look back on it, the use of the term "minority" is perhaps even more damning than the n-word. Think of all the connotations the term implies. Being a member of a race that is viewed as inferior is bad enough, but being a "minority" is a not-so subtle way to reinforce inferior status. Of course, what it is about is power.

As a "minority" you would always have to take whatever the "majority" decided to give you--and they expected you to be grateful for anything. Being a "minority" justified making you an after-thought in everything from history books to the casts of movies and television programs. It made you what Ralph Ellison famously termed "invisible."

How People of Color Elected Obama

This election should put that notion of "minorities" to rest for good. What it showed was that if people of color turned out in enough numbers and heavily supported one candidate, they could control the outcome.

According to Times polling data, people of color made up a quarter of the electorate, yet Obama walked away with a convincing victory in both the Electoral College and the popular vote. How could this happen, say a lot of whites, scratching their heads? Hence all the right wing commentary about the media favoring Obama and even darker conspiratorial whisperings.

The answer is actually right there in the data. Obama won an incredible 95% of the African American vote--a margin far exceeding any that had ever been recorded since exit polling began. In fact the so-called "minority" standing of people of color had pollsters not even tracking their votes up until fairly recently.

In addition to the huge African American majority, Obama won 67% of the Latino vote and 62% of the vote of Asian Americans--a triple victory in proportions no Presidential candidate has ever received before. John McCain won the white vote only because he won the votes of white males--which are now a true minority--but he lost white females 53% to 46%, which coincidentally is exactly the margin of the popular vote.

But the breakdown of McCain's voters is even more interesting because he won only older white males, while whites aged 18-29 went for Obama 54% to 44%. Among white voters over 30, McCain won 57% of the vote.

If you add Obama's totals to Clinton's wins along with the fact that people of color did not support either Al Gore or John Kerry as strongly as they did Clinton and Obama and you have the making of a watershed trend.

A Wave of Color

Jorge Ramos is an analyst on television because of his book The Latino Wave, which should be required reading for all Americans and certainly for all American politicians. Jorge Ramos points out that the Hispanic vote also elected Bush in 2004. Ramos has written about 2004:
The election was not decided in Ohio. It was decided long before that in states with high percentages of Latino voters. [p.2]

Ramos also points out that Latinos made up 8% of the total vote, a sizeable bloc when one places it in the states where they are especially strong.

In 2008 the Latino Wave grew into a tidal wave. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund says this tidal wave helped to reshape not only this election but America's electoral map. Their study shows:
Exit polls suggest that between 8% and 9% of all voters in the general election were Latino. With more than 122 million voters participating in the election, the NALEO Educational Fund estimates that between 9.6 and 11 million Latino voters cast ballots this past Tuesday, making it the largest turnout of Latino voters in history. The census reported 7.6 million Latinos voters in the 2004 Presidential Election.

The study concludes:
The Latino vote nevertheless had a significant impact in reshaping the political map by helping decide the outcome of several key “battleground” states carried by President Bush in 2004.

In addition to the Latino Wave and what can only be termed an African American uprising was a surprising turn in the votes of Asian Americans, who did not support Bill Clinton, but began to turn to the Democrats in the 2000 election when they gave Al Gore 54% of their votes and in 2004 when they gave John Kerry 56%. As with the other communities of color this became a wave in 2008 with 62% supporting Barack Obama.

The New America

Demography backs this up. In short, the percentage of people of color in this country is growing. In fact I have a theory that part of the backlash against immigrants is racial, for many of these new Americans are people of color.

The most recent projections from the United States Census Bureau project that halfway into the new century the nation will have a total population of 439 million. Of that total 59 million or 13% will be African American, 132 million or 30% of the country will be what the Census Bureau terms Hispanic and 34 million or 7% will be Asian American. In other words by 2050 almost half od this country will consist of people of color.

What makes these projection even more dramatic is that in many states people of color will be a majority, especially in the Southwest where Hispanics could outnumber whites some time in the next two decades, depending on projections.

As a nation of immigrants, this means America's population will come to resemble that of the entire globe, which if you think globally should be a tremendous advantage for this country because our diversity will allow us to operate in a world where power is already shifting from whites to people of color, from West to East.

Lights Out for the GOP?

These changing demographics and the results of elections since 1992 have huge implications for American politics. As anyone who watched the GOP convention noted, Republicans have done little to encourage people of color to join their party and much to discourage them.

By treating people of color as "minorities," the Republicans could be on their way to becoming a minority party. Every major party in America that has died out--the Federalists and the Whigs--died out in large part because they could not diversify with the times and paid for it at the ballot box.

Now the GOP is in a similar position as the country faces an economic crisis that already is hanging around the Party's neck like the putrid corpse of an albatross. As in a classic tragedy, its own hubris (think Newt Gingrich) about race and class is in danger of doing it in.

In fact instead of moving forwards the GOP is moving backwards. According to a study released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the 2008 GOP Convention had the lowest number of African American delegates in 40 years. That’s 1968!

Here is what the Center said:
Blacks and the 2008 Republican Convention, released today by the nonpartisan research institution that focuses on minority issues, notes that African Americans will comprise only 1.5 percent of the total number of GOP delegates, substantially below the record setting 6.7 percent in 2004.

The 36 black delegates in 2008 represent a 78.4 percent decline from the 167 black delegates at the 2004 GOP convention.

The report also notes:
According to Joint Center data, there are 14 black Republicans in state office (including state legislatures) and 40 black Republicans in local office across the country. There are approximately 10,000 black elected officials in the United States, but since a majority of elected offices are nonpartisan, there are probably additional black Republican officeholders who have been elected to nonpartisan offices.

Regardless of the report’s attempt to gild this appalling statistic 54 black Republicans out of 10,000 is a figures that defies any other explanation than that the Republican Party deliberately discriminates against African Americans.

A political party with that kind of representation will not survive for long in this century.

The Democrats

The Democrats should not feel too smug about this development for they have also ignored people of color. They need to remember that their party is now in the White House because their candidate was an African American. A white candidate would not have polled those high percentages or the high turnouts among people of color that beat John McCain.

Years from now historians will look back on this watershed election and wonder why it took so long for the Democratic Party to realize this. Fannie Lou Hamer tried to tell them in the 1960s. Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson tried to tell them with their Presidential runs.

Now the question is, will they really get it? The Party hierarchy is still largely white males. People of color hope Barack Obama will change this because they doubt the Democrats understand it any more now than they did in 2000 and 2004 when the Party failed to rally and recruit voters of color.

The tortuous path it took to renew the Voting Rights Act provides an instructive lesson for both parties, for what should have been a slam dunk became mired in contention and at one point was in danger of being gutted beyond recognition.

Obama's Task

Probably Barack Obama's most difficult political task will be to take the new coalition that elected him and sustain it. In short, he must bring America into a 21st century where diversity is the key to success not looking down on people as "minorities."

People of color are not naive enough to believe whites will suddenly have a light bulb moment about this new reality, but they also will not stand for any more of the "same-old, same-old" from an Obama Administration. Their own experiences tell them what Obama faces, yet at the same time their hopes have them expecting change.

That the task is also confounded by generational as well as racial differences will make it even more difficult, for really what the nation faces and what makes this election truly a watershed is every indication that younger Americans, no matter what their race, harbor an entirely different mental model of the world than their elders. Generation O, the trend spotters are already naming them.

Towards a New America

The outlines of this new America can still only be dimly glimpsed, but much as Woodrow Wilson was in many ways our first modern President, so Barack Obama is our first 21st century President. Both Wilson and Obama personify a changing America (which is why Wilson and not Theodore Roosevelt deserves the honor).

Wilson in his first inaugural address acknowledges these changes in one of the more underrated speeches of our century.
We have been proud of our industrial achievements, but we have not hitherto stopped thoughtfully enough to count the human cost, the cost of lives snuffed out, of energies overtaxed and broken, the fearful physical and spiritual cost to the men and women and children upon whom the dead weight and burden of it all has fallen pitilessly the years through. The groans and agony of it all had not yet reached our ears, the solemn, moving undertone of our life, coming up out of the mines and factories, and out of every home where the struggle had its intimate and familiar seat. With the great Government went many deep secret things which we too long delayed to look into and scrutinize with candid, fearless eyes. The great Government we loved has too often been made use of for private and selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the people.

Now we await Barack Obama's definition of a new America. Wilson also deserves to be acknowledged as the father of the American Century. Barack Obama's election signifies a different century, one where globalization and interrelationships will be the key to international success nut industrial might.

We must remember we dominated the American Century as much by our values as by our economic power. Now in this new century we must make those values relevant to a changing world. Whether Barack Obama does this or not, someone else will because the times demand it.

If we do not adapt both domestically and globally, quite simply we will go the way of other nations that failed to grasp the climate had altered and they could not lumber like the dinosaurs. Yet America has not survived as long as it has by refusing to change. Sometimes we have done it reluctantly--even been forced into it--but eventually we came around because we are a democracy that believes in a level playing field.

I have no reason to doubt we will continue to do so.




Blogger Unknown on 11/14/2008 2:20 PM:

This is a brilliant piece, but I disagree with your contention that Obama won because he was African-American. I'm pretty sure a number of other Democrats, Hillary Clinton included, could have won this year; Sarah Palin and the bailout made sure of that, if the war wasn't already enough. They simply would have run different campaigns. Obama's final margin obscures the fact that this election was a landslide from first to last; Obama had so much extra money and staff that he had the luxury of running a fifty-state Presidential campaign and throwing cash around in states that had no chance of going blue. Hillary would have had to double down and fight a more focused firewall strategy, but I'm convinced she would have won at the end of the day as well. In fact, about the only Democrats who could have failed to win in this election would have been a gray and boring character like John Kerry, or someone for whom a major scandal broke during the general election campaign, as would have happened with John Edwards.

Also, regarding your discussion of "minority" -- isn't it interesting how women have also been considered "minorities," even though they make up more than 50% of the population? That in itself tells you that the term doesn't mean what the word actually says.


Blogger Heather Munro Prescott on 11/15/2008 8:40 AM:

Speaking of women, it's important to also observe that the women's vote (including Hilary supporters) contributed to Obama's victory as well. So, we didn't stay home with our knitting after all, as Rahm Emmanuel thought we would.


Blogger Unknown on 11/15/2008 2:19 PM:

Gotta love Rahm, right? That douchenozzle.


Anonymous Anonymous on 11/16/2008 6:26 PM:

There have been several pieces in the press and on the net advocating your position that Hillary Clinton also would have won, but I am not so sure. Many African Americans were--and still are angry--at the type of campaign Clinton ran and I think would have stayed home. But for argument's sake let's assume she could have done almost as well as her husband--that would have meant 80% of a reduced African American vote.

In 2000 and 2004 both Gore and Kerry actually received a larger percentage of the African American vote than Bill Clinton, but the turnout was less. So they lost.

The second factor bearing on a hypothetical Hillary Clinton win is that both she and McCain had the same core constituency: older whites. Clinton was never able to capture many young voters. So their turnout also would have been lower.

Finally the gender gap for Obama was the largest in polling history. I don't think Clinton would have improved much on that.

With those three assumptions you would have to conduct a more detailed examination of state and local data, but my guess is the articles that will be written on this by those who do analyze the data will show a very close election, much closer than Obama's win and could very well show a McCain victory.

While Hillary Clinton is problematical, I think the polling data show that none of the other Democratic contenders would have won.

Funny the password I received for this post was "brack."


Blogger Unknown on 11/16/2008 8:46 PM:

Ralph, you're assuming that Clinton or the others would have run the same kind of campaign Obama ran. I don't think they would have. Most campaigns are run balls-to-the-wall in the last month, staffs working eighteen- and twenty-hour days and campaigns going deep into the red to air just one more ad in just one more swing state (the exception being Kerry, who inexplicably chose not to spend his last $15 million despite polls showing him neck-and-neck with Bush). Obama, meanwhile, was coasting, spending gobs of money in states he didn't need to win as a way of expanding the map for future elections and increasing the size of the Democratic Congress. Basically, the margin was close because Obama didn't put any effort in trying to stretch the margin -- his effort went in other places, like picking off that electoral vote in Nebraska and creating a climate in Idaho that allowed Walt Minnick to steal away at R+18 House seat.

Clinton and other candidates wouldn't have been able to do those things, but they wouldn't have needed to either. A traditional leave-the-rubber-on-the-road campaign would likely have been enough to win in this year and against the McCain/Palin ticket. Also, keep in mind that polls showed Clinton picking up one additional state, Arkansas, by a huge margin. I maintain that absent an Edwards-style scandal or a collossally boneheaded candidate (a Sarah Palin of the left), any Democrat would likely have won this year. It would have been a different kind of win, with different states and different strategy, but at the end of the day it would have been a win.