Part 1—What does polarized mean: Is the current election the most racialized in the past two decades?
In our view, the correct answer to that question would be: “What do you mean by that term?”
Many journalists love the topic of race. It attracts attention and fires the blood. People look up when you type about race—or about “racialization!”
And not only that! People look up when you build a report around the idea of racial “polarization!” Blood begins to rush through the veins! Weak, tired prose becomes thrilling!
Last Friday, Jon Cohen did a front-page report in the Washington Post about patterns in current polling.
Cohen is polling director for the Post. He may be good at managing polls—but he has always been an underwhelming journalist. For his recent “5 myths about political polling,” click here. This piece was quite weak, as you will surely discover.
Back to last Friday: What was the theme of Cohen’s front-page news report? Essentially, Cohen’s theme was this: Obama will get less support from white voters this time than he did in 2008!
Such an outcome will hardly be surprising. Obama beat McCain by 7.2 points in 2008. At present, he’s running a point behind Romney in the Washington Post’s tracking poll.
Almost surely, Obama is going to get fewer votes this time! No one will be surprised if that happens, especially since he’s seeking re-election in bad economic times.
Newsflash! Presidents tend to get fewer votes when they seek re-election in bad times. If you doubt that, ask Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush, whose vote percentages we will present below.
No one is going to be surprised if Obama gets fewer votes this time! Indeed, that’s pretty much what everyone has always predicted! (For ourselves, we have no idea.) That said, Cohen found a great deal of excitement in this less than shocking prospect. Here’s the way he framed his front-page report:
COHEN (10/26/12): The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama experiencing a steep drop in support among white voters from four years ago.In the current Post poll, Obama is doing worse among white voters than he did in 2008! He is currently trailing among white voters, 60-37!
At this stage in 2008, Obama trailed Republican John McCain by seven percentage points among white voters. Even in victory, Obama ended up losing white voters by 12 percentage points, according to that year’s exit poll.
But now, Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll. That presents a significant hurdle for the president—and suggests that he will need to achieve even larger margins of victory among women and minorities, two important parts of the Democratic base, to win reelection.
On its face, that sounds like a lot. But in some ways, it pretty much isn’t.
Breaking! The Democratic presidential candidate always loses the white vote! Typically, the Democrat loses by a substantial amount. These are the results among white voters in the last three presidential elections:
Percentage of the vote, white voters only:In 2008, Obama ran in a good climate for Democrats; overall, he beat McCain by 7.2 points. But even in that circumstance, Obama only got 43 percent of the white vote. That was slightly more than Candidates Kerry or Gore had received.
2000: Bush 55, Gore 42 (Nader 3)
2004: Bush 58, Kerry 41
2008: McCain 55, Obama 43
(We’re using Roper numbers throughout. Click here, then keep clicking. For New York Times numbers, which may differ slightly, click this.)
Obama surely lost some votes in 2008 because of his race. In our view, he probably lost net votes among whites because of his race. If Kerry and Gore got 41 and 42 percent, Obama probably should have gotten a somewhat higher percentage than he did, given the circumstances in which he ran. That said, this is speculation—and as we noted in 2008 and 2009, there was little interest within the press corps in exploring this obvious topic.
That said, Obama is seeking re-election in a much more difficult context. Given the voting patterns of the past forty years, it would be completely unremarkable if his percentage of the white vote slipped from 43 percent to (let’s say) 37 or 38 percent.
(Presumably, that total would reflect some race-based holdouts, as was the case in 2008.)
This just in: When presidents seek re-election in bad times, they always lose white support! Below, you see Jimmy Carter’s numbers in 1976 and 1980, along with George H. W. Bush’s numbers three cycles later:
Percentage of the vote, white voters only:Many white voters dumped Carter and Bush when they sought re-election. The analysis is complicated by the presence of major third-party candidates in 1980 and 1992. But the loss of support is plain:
1976: Ford 52, Carter 48
1980: Reagan 56, Carter 36 (Anderson 8)
1988: Bush 60, Dukakis 40
1992: Bush 41, Clinton 39 (Perot 21)
In 1976, Carter almost broke even with Ford among white voters. Four years later, Reagan beat him among white voters by twenty points.
(In 1984, Mondale lost the white vote by 32 points—66 to 34.)
In 1988, Bush beat Dukakis among white voters by twenty points. Four years later, Clinton almost matched him.
Extra! Presidents running in bad economies tend to lose support from white voters! Judging from those earlier examples, there would be nothing shocking if Obama went from 43 percent in 2008 to 38 percent this time.
But on the front page of the Washington Post, Cohen found ways to make this unfortunate but rather pedestrian development sound extremely exciting. In his opening paragraph, he said this election is “shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988.”
Exciting! Cohen never quite explained what that formulation meant—and to the extent that he finally did explain, he may have understated the matter. (If he wanted to use that formulation, he probably should have said “since 1984.” More tomorrow.)
That said, what does “polarized along racial lines” actually mean in this context? Why did Cohen choose to use the word “polarized” at all? Granted, the word can be very exciting in its various applications, not all of which involve race. But what does it mean in this context—and what did it mean when Kevin Drum said in a headline that this is our most “racialized” election in the past two decades? (In his text, Drum referred to it as "the most thoroughly racialized.")
Granted, these terms convey lots of heat. But do these terms convey light?
Let’s be fair to polling director Cohen! In fairness, “polarized along racial lines” is an exciting phrase. It’s the kind of phrase which sends blood through veins. Even better, it tends to let us liberals imagine and pretend that we’re the truly good people here, even though we often pretty much aren’t.
We wouldn’t use that formulation ourselves, especially with respect to such a serious topic. But in fairness, many journalists love the thrill of race.
Race sends thrills up some journalists’ legs! Ditto for the legs of some liberals and even some academics! Indeed, this phenomenon is painfully clear in a recent AP report—a report the Post ran at great length this weekend.
Leave it to the Associated Press, one of our least competent news orgs! In our view, the AP’s exciting report shows the remarkable haplessness of large segments of the journalistic and academic words.
In our view, that report shows one more thing. It shows the thrill we can send up our legs when we toy with the topic of race.
That AP report conveys almost no light. But thank you dear God! All that heat!
Tomorrow: What the AP said