A debate is percolating over whether the Mitt Romney campaign has tried… (M. Spencer Green, Carolyn…)
As the size of the nonwhite voting population in the U.S. has grown, so too has its power and the ability of minority voters to determine an election outcome. With blacks and Latinos backing President Obama by extremely large margins, Mitt Romney needs a historically high margin among whites to win the presidency.
Columnist Ron Brownstein, who has studied the demographics of American elections intensively, estimates the tipping point to be 60%. If Romney can win the backing of more than 60% of white voters – matching the share won by Ronald Reagan in 1980 – he may prevail. If his majority comes to 60% or less, Obama probably will win – so long as the minority share of the vote remains at least as large as it was in 2008.
This hard-fought and close election, with its strong racial aspect, involves an incumbent about whom many voters have racially polarized views. Brown University political science professor Michael Tesler, who studied the effect of race on the vote for Obama in 2008, has continued to track how voters react to the president. He has found that Obama has a powerful “racializing” effect on how voters react to issues, personalities, even pets.
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When Obama takes a position on an issue, the attitudes of white voters quickly polarize along lines of how they feel about race, Tesler has found. Not all white voters have strong feelings about race, but those who do line up in ways that correlate with their racial feelings. Those whose attitudes are more negative about blacks oppose positions after they know Obama is for them, while those whose feelings toward blacks are strongly positive line up on the other side. Tesler has measured the effect on matters as diverse as how voters reacted to healthcare, taxes, even a photo of the Obama family dog, Bo.
That polarization, and the calculus involved in the election, provide the backdrop for an increasingly vocal debate over whether Romney’s campaign has tried to stoke racial resentments, primarily through television ads attacking the administration over welfare policy.
Republican leaders strongly deny that’s what they are doing. The suggestion of racial motivations “is just flat wrong,” Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Romney’s campaign, said at a Bloomberg News breakfast on Monday. “I don't think there's any doubt what our message here is,” he added. The point of the welfare ads is that “President Obama's policies don't work, and he is too liberal for this country.”
Obama and his top aides have remained publicly silent on the issue. They have frequently, and loudly, objected that the welfare ads are false, but they have steered away from suggesting that the ads are racially coded. Indeed, some White House officials in recent weeks actively have rebutted suggestions that race plays a major role in the current campaign. Their comments track an overall strategy that Obama aides have pursued since his election of generally avoiding racially charged discussions.
Journalists, by contrast, find America’s long-standing racial divides an object of fascination. And several have highlighted what they see as a growing race-related message in Romney’s campaign. (See examples here, here and here).
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Their argument is that by reviving a debate over welfare – a policy matter that has lain quiescent for more than 15 years – Romney’s campaign has seized on an issue that is well known for stoking racial resentments among some white voters. That the campaign raised the issue at a time when Romney needs to maximize his votes among whites is unlikely to be a coincidence, critics say.
The attack takes on greater sting because the central claim of the ad – that Obama has adopted a policy that “guts” the welfare reform law passed in 1996 – is untrue. The ad seizes on a policy statement that the Health and Human Services Department issued in July that said the administration would consider requests from states to experiment with alternative ways to meet the law’s work requirements. From that relatively small shift, the ad leaps to assert that the administration would actually allow states to eliminate the work requirement entirely.
But several other facts need to be kept in mind before one should conclude that a racially coded attack has begun to influence the presidential race.
Debates about welfare are not only or always about race. Race has played a part in those debates over the years, but welfare is also a symbolically powerful issue for how people feel about government spending and about how much of a claim the poor have on the money of the wealthy. People can feel strongly about those issues even when all the subjects involved are white.