WHITE MEN AND WHITE WOMEN
In 2008, Obama became the first presidential nominee ever to lose white voters by double digits and still win the White House: McCain beat him among white voters, 55 percent to 43 percent. But Obama’s vote share among whites wasn’t unusually weak for a Democrat; in fact, his 43 percent tied Clinton’s 1996 showing as the party’s best performance among whites since 1980. But Clinton’s losing margins among whites were much smaller than Obama’s (just 1 percentage point in 1992 and 3 points in 1996) because independent candidate Ross Perot siphoned many of them away from the GOP. Other polling measures that predate the national exit polls show that no Democratic nominee since Johnson in 1964 has carried even a plurality of whites. Polling this year suggests that even if Obama wins, he could well run below his 2008 showing among whites.
Gender, class, and cultural affinities (such as marital status and religious practice) all consistently shape whites’ voting preferences. Democrats do better among women, single voters, those who attend church less frequently, and those with more education. Republicans run best among men, married voters, regular churchgoers, and people without advanced education. All of these influences intersect and reinforce each other: In the past two elections, Republicans have won about two-thirds of married, noncollege white men, while Democrats have won almost two-thirds of single, college-educated white women.
Over the past three decades, gender has been the most extensively discussed divide in the white electorate. In the past eight elections, the Democratic nominee has averaged just 36.1 percent of the vote among white men; every Democratic nominee over that period has lost white men by double digits except for Clinton in 1992 (when the Perot effect was strongest). The modest 41 percent that Obama won among white men was actually the Democrats’ highest share since 1980.
For most of this period, Democrats have struggled among white men of all education levels. But the past two elections have seen a divergence. White men without a college degree are now solidly Republican. Since 1980, Democratic nominees have averaged just 35.9 percent support among these voters; Obama’s meager 39 percent share of this group was the party’s best showing over that period. For Democrats, the low point came in 1984 when Walter Mondale, even while offering the classic New Deal message of economic fairness, attracted just 31 percent of noncollege white men. Polling this year shows that Obama could approach that nadir—or even sink beneath it.
In the 1980s, college-educated white men were equally, if not more, difficult for Democrats to win: In the three elections of that decade, the party’s nominees averaged just 31.3 percent support among them. Even through Clinton’s two elections, Democrats ran slightly better among white men without a college degree than those with one. But those lines roughly converged in 2000 and then crossed: John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008 ran 4 percentage points better among white men with a degree than those without one. Obama reached 43 percent among college-educated white men, the best showing for Democrats over this period. The effect of this “class inversion” since the 1980s has been even more powerful with white women. But in polling this year, the class inversion is widening among men, too: Polls frequently show Obama running between 8 and 10 percentage points better among college-educated men than those with no college. That’s not because Obama is improving his backing among the better-educated men—he is just losing less ground with those men than with the blue-collar white men stampeding toward Romney in Reagan-size proportions.
Marital status also matters among men. Since 1984 (the first year that the exit poll tracked marital status), no Democratic nominee has won more than Obama’s 38 percent among married white men. By contrast, in each election since 1988, the Democratic nominee has won at least 40 percent of single white men, topping out at 46 percent for Kerry in 2004 and 48 percent for Obama in 2008. Class and marital status reinforce each other in predictable ways. Kerry and Obama faced an average deficit of nearly 40 percentage points among married, blue-collar white men, while running almost exactly even among their single, college-educated counterparts.
Over this period, white women have been more receptive to Democrats and also more unsettled in their preferences. Only Clinton in 1996 carried a plurality of white women, although he ran about even with them in 1992, as did Gore in 2000. (Obama captured 46 percent of white women; only Clinton in 1996 and Gore in 2000 won more over this period.) The Republican share among white women has oscillated from Reagan’s 62 percent in 1984 to a low of 41 percent in the Perot-influenced 1992 race.
The same factors that shape the preferences of white men are even more powerfully evident among white women. In the three elections in the 1980s, Reagan and George H.W. Bush carried college-educated white women by an average margin of 9 percentage points. But Democrats have captured a plurality or majority of those well-educated women in each election since then, except in 2004 when they split between Kerry and Bush. Over these past five elections, Democrats have averaged 49.2 percent among college-educated white women, topping out at 52 percent of the vote behind both Gore and Obama.