After two years of a punishing recession, minority support for House Democrats sagged in this election to the lowest level recorded by exit polls in the past two decades, according to calculations that Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, provided to National Journal. The Hispanic vote for Democrats in House races slipped to 60 percent, compared with about two-thirds for Obama in 2008 (although some Hispanic analysts say that other data indicate a better showing for Democrats last year). But even so, a solid 73 percent of all nonwhite voters—African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and others—backed Democratic House candidates in the midterm election, according to the new analysis.
Meanwhile, Republicans, with their 60 percent showing, notched the party’s best congressional result among white voters in the history of modern polling. Media exit polls conducted by Edison Research and its predecessors have been tracking congressional elections for about three decades. In no previous exit poll had Republicans reached 60 percent of the white vote in House races. The University of Michigan’s National Election Studies, a biennial pre- and postelection poll, is another source of data on voting behavior dating to 1948. Republicans had never reached 60 percent of the congressional vote among whites in any NES survey. Only in the NES surveys had Democrats reached that 60 percent congressional support level among white voters: in their 1974 post-Watergate landslide and in Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 rout of Barry Goldwater.
November’s gap between the voting preferences of whites and minorities was at the wider end of the range over the past two decades but it wasn’t the absolute widest. More striking was the disparity between the two groups’ views on other questions with implications for the 2012 election.
First among those was Obama’s performance. Exactly 75 percent of minority voters said they approved; only 22 percent said they disapproved. Among white voters, just 35 percent approved of the president’s performance, while 65 percent disapproved; a head-turning 49 percent of whites said they strongly disapproved. (Those whites voted Republican last fall by a ratio of 18-to-1.)
The racial gulf was similar when voters were asked whether they believed that Obama’s policies would help the nation in the long run. By 70 percent to 22 percent, minorities said yes; by 61 percent to 34 percent, whites said no. On election night, much attention focused on the exit-poll result that showed voters divided almost exactly in half on whether Congress should repeal the comprehensive health care reform legislation that Obama signed last year or should preserve or even expand it. But that convergence obscured a profound racial contrast. The vast majority of minority voters said they wanted lawmakers to expand the health care law (54 percent) or maintain it in its current form (16 percent), while only 24 percent said they wanted Congress to repeal it. Among white voters, the sentiments were almost inverted: 56 percent said that lawmakers should repeal the law, while much smaller groups wanted them to expand it (23 percent) or leave it alone (just 16 percent).
“The issues we’ll burnish are ones that will resonate better with some of these [disaffected white] voters.” —White House political strategist David Axelrod
The gap was also wide in attitudes about two fundamental tenets. Minorities were almost exactly twice as likely as whites to say that life would be better for the next generation than for their own; whites were considerably more likely to say that it would be more difficult. And on a question measuring bedrock beliefs about the role of government, the two racial groups again registered almost mirror-image preferences. Sixty percent of minorities said that government should be doing more to solve problems; 63 percent of whites said that government is doing too many things that would be better left to businesses and individuals.
The irony in these results is that minorities expressed more faith in both the future and the government than whites did, even though the recession has hit minority communities harder. Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University who studies Hispanics’ attitudes, says that part of the explanation is that whites found the downturn more psychologically wrenching because more of them (especially white-collar whites) had expected to make a steady ascent up the economic ladder. More minority workers hold marginal positions in the private economy, he says, so they were less likely to be shocked by the severity of the downturn—and more likely to turn to government, rather than the private sector, to help survive it. “They didn’t lose money on Wall Street; they had shitty jobs, if they had jobs, so where would they look to if not the [government]?” de la Garza asked.