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Red and blue, black and white

Race proves to be no discernible handicap for Obama, even among small-town, working-class whites.

November 05, 2008|Peter Wallsten | Wallsten is a Times staff writer.

WASHINGTON — Beneath some of the sharpest assaults on Barack Obama -- that he consorted with radicals, that he condescended to small-town Americans -- was a lingering question: Would white America help elect a black president?

On Tuesday, Obama rode a surge of support across many voter groups. And white Americans played a major role in putting the first black president in the White House.

Obama did not win a majority of white voters; no Democrat has since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. But he ran equal to the last three Democratic candidates for president among white voters, and even slightly better than the party's 2004 nominee, according to an Edison/Mitofsky exit poll conducted for a consortium of TV networks and the Associated Press.

Race proved to be no discernible handicap, even among the small-town, working-class whites who were considered most resistant to the black political newcomer from Chicago.

The force propelling Obama was clear: a troubled economy that had gone from shaky in the spring and summer to frightening in the fall. But in choosing an African American as the best person to lead in a time of crisis, the nation's voters have broken a number of long-held truths about the hold of race on the country.

Racial antagonism still exists. But with Obama's victory, voters showed that such feelings no longer hovered over American politics as they had for decades.

Most symbolic of that achievement was Obama's victory in Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy, where the candidate ended his 21-month campaign with a massive rally in Manassas, near the site of one of the epic battles of the Civil War.

Breaking with recent assumptions, Obama showed that a single candidate can appeal to black voters without losing whites, and to white voters without losing blacks.

"The important question was not black or white but green. That is, who was best to handle the economy," said Peter A. Brown, associate director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

"This is a guy who five years ago was in the state Senate, and Americans decided to trust him with their country," Brown said. "I don't think I'm being overly simplistic by saying these results do demonstrate that racial attitudes have changed."

Obama's coalition cemented during one all-important week of the campaign, in mid-September, when Wall Street financial giants began to collapse and the stock market crashed -- a week in which voters still uncertain what to make of the young junior senator examined their shrinking retirement accounts and dwindling home values and decided to take a chance.

National exit polls Tuesday showed that nearly three-quarters of voters disapproved of the job President Bush was doing. And the vast majority of those Americans showed that they were ready for something different.

By the time President-elect Obama addressed hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters in downtown Chicago, it was hard to remember the reasons why many once believed his candidacy was a long shot.

Opponents spread false Internet rumors that he was a Muslim, which were supposed to scare off Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida. Some speculated that Latinos would not vote for a black candidate. Or that women, angry over the defeat of Hillary Rodham Clinton in a bruising primary, would either vote for John McCain or stay home. Or that young voters would not back Obama as strongly as his campaign had hoped.

Election day told a different story.

Obama improved on past Democratic performances among all groups, with the singular exception of seniors. He improved on 2004 nominee John F. Kerry's totals among Jews, Protestants and Catholics. While Kerry split women's votes with Bush, Obama won a decisive majority.

Moreover, Obama won the votes of 4 in 10 white men -- higher than the last five Democratic presidential nominees, according to a National Journal study of exit polls -- and nearly half of white independents.

Latinos, courted aggressively by both sides with Spanish-language ad campaigns, went overwhelmingly for Obama. McCain, once popular with Latinos, won 3 in 10 -- a deep decline from the 45% won four years ago by Bush.

Just as Obama helped expand the Democratic coalition -- bringing with him new U.S. senators and House members in Republican states from Florida to North Carolina -- Republicans now face a drastically narrowed party.

Tuesday's results show that Bush and McCain have left the GOP appealing primarily to white conservatives at a time when Obama's ascension symbolizes the growing multiculturalism of America.

The African American share of the electorate, for example, grew slightly, according to network exit polls. That was no doubt a result of the excitement over Obama's candidacy and a deliberate strategy by his campaign to register new voters and contact blacks who had not participated in the past.

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