Political Animal


October 23, 2012 5:44 PM 40/90

By Ed Kilgore

One of the underlying topics of political discussion this year has been the irreducible minimum of white voters Barack Obama needed to be re-elected. TNR’s invaluable Nate Cohn has the latest update on the subject, noting that Obama may wind up with the lowest percentage of the white vote since Fritz Mondale won 35% en route to losing 49 states.

With most of the calculations putting Obama at or somewhat below 40% among white voters, I’ve been slowly realizing that I seem to be less alarmed at the prospect that a lot of my progressive brethren. And I finally realized why: I’m from Georgia, where the ancient calculus for Democrats to win statewide elections was often abbreviated as the 40/90 rule: win forty percent of the white vote and 90 percent of the black vote, and you were over the top, sometimes by a decent margin.

Now Georgia’s not representative of the country, and moreover, there’s little chance Barack Obama will get close to 40% of the white vote there or anywhere else in the Deep South. Most importantly, the nonwhite vote nationally (or for that matter, in Georgia) is no longer just a bit larger than the black vote, and is in fact a plurality brown vote in most elections. I also understand that anything around 40% of the white vote won’t cut it in very honkified states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

But still—and maybe this represents the tendency of some Democrats to identify party success with the New Deal Coalition and particularly the white working-class vote, which has been solidly Republican in most national elections for decades now—the idea of losing the white vote by margins like 3-2 tends to bug some folk. But it’s time to remind ourselves that a vote is a vote, and that there is zero danger that the Democratic Party is going to stop being aware of the views and interests of white people, who do tend to, you know, own most of the country.

The annoying thing about the old southern 40/90 coalition was its one-way nature: African-Americans were expected to loyally support white Democratic candidates, some of them pretty conservative. But they were often told a more representative slate of Democratic candidates would scare away white voters, and thus wasn’t acceptable. To this day, Doug Wilder is the only African-American candidate who has won a gubernatorial or Senate race in the Old Confederacy. And that’s one of the reasons a lot of southerners, black and white, supported Barack Obama from the get-go in 2008, to break that ceiling at its very peak. It’s hard to say how much Obama’s relatively low support levels among white voters is attributable to his race. But we are well on the way to caring a lot less than we used to, and viewing non-white voters as central, not ancillary, to political coalitions. So if Obama is re-elected with a historically low share of the white vote, it may prove as a useful Copernican reminder that we’re not the center of the political universe any more.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Basilisc on October 23, 2012 6:03 PM:

    A nice post, but can we try to stop thinking about "the white vote" as a single, nationwide thing? Cohn's piece makes this mistake, as does yours. I would say it obscures more than it reveals.

    There are two white votes: the southern white vote, which Democrats will always get a bare minimum of, and the rest-of-the-country white vote, where Democrats can get close to or sometimes above a majority. With politics having completed its migration from an expression of interests and trust, into an expression of cultural allegiance, Democrats will now have to get used to writing off the southern white vote, just as Republicans now write off the nationwide non-white vote.

    The contest is for non-southern whites. I don't have the figures to hand, but I remember looking at this once and finding that Gore narrowly carried them in 2000, Kerry narrowly lost them in 2004, and Obama narrowly won them in 2008. To win this time, Obama needs to carry non-southern whites, even if narrowly. And he has pretty good odds of doing so. End of story.

  • Mitch on October 23, 2012 7:06 PM:


    I wouldn't really consider it a Southern vs. non-Southern issue as much as it is an issue of racist theocratic know-nothing whites vs. the rest of us.

    As a white child of the South, I can say that there are plenty of open-minded, non-bigotted white folk down in Dixie. Granted, most of us leave the South as swiftly as possible (I left a decade ago) but many do not. In addition to younger white voters, there are also old-timers who recall all of the good done by the TVA, and other FDR-era organizations, although they are of course passing on as time goes by.

    Yes, there are more racist theocratic know-nothings in the South, but there are also plenty of them here in northern California, where I live today. Indeed, many of the working-class white men here in NorCal are worse than many of my friends from the South in those respects.

    It's a mind-set that we are battling, not a people. And there is hope, even for folks who were raised by hyper-zealous Fundies, racists and bigots. After all, I just decribed much of my own family.

  • MNP on October 23, 2012 7:27 PM:

    I think it is worth bothering about. The problem is as you said, the white vote owns most of the country. It is the most powerful. Sure maybe you can win without it, but how well can you govern without it? They have the most power and they can obstruct the most.

  • James E. Powell on October 23, 2012 8:07 PM:

    For the near term, the next two weeks, Obama/Biden has to be relentless in their pursuit of the persuadable white voter, few though they might be.

    But for the long term, the Democratic Party has to work to split up the white voter bloc that has been voting mostly Republican since 1972. It can be done, but it will require more than just rhetoric. Policies that will improve the lives of those who earn between $50-100K are the key to that effort.

  • Dana F. Blankenhorn on October 23, 2012 8:26 PM:

    Being in Georgia I wish I could be so sanguine. As the GOP has become identified as the "white party" its share of the white vote has steadily grown, to the point of tribalism. Democrats can't win anywhere in the Deep South because white folks remain the majority and they always vote, uniformly, for the white party. If Obama gets 20% of the white vote in any deep southern state I'll be surprised.

    And this is what the national GOP is trying to do to us. They are doing it deliberately, with malice aforethought. Turning America into a tribal nation is the most evil electoral thing I can imagine, but there you are.

  • Werewolf on October 23, 2012 11:18 PM:

    This is one of the things that really irked me about the Hillary Clinton campaign in '08-the insistence that she should get the nomination because she polled better with white people. As if votes from brown people don't matter. I'd have voted for her in the general, of course, but that was one of the big reasons that I wanted Obama to win.

  • bluestatedon on October 24, 2012 12:16 AM:

    "Itís hard to say how much Obamaís relatively low support levels among white voters is attributable to his race."

    Oh c'mon, it's not hard to say at all. If the man currently sitting in the Oval Office was white and was named Richard Smith, but otherwise had the same broad details on his resume, his approval ratings would be 10 points higher, and he'd be a shoo-in for re-election.

  • greennotGreen on October 24, 2012 9:16 AM:

    When Obama originally won the nomination in 2008, a friend warned he couldn't win because of racism. I scoffed that there wasn't that much racism left in the United States. (What can I say? I work in the ivory tower. I'm sheltered.) Obama won, but my friend was right about the levels of racism still polluting the national air. Luckily, a lot of that bad air is in old people who will be dying out, increasingly replaced by people for whom civil rights was less a struggle than something so obviously fair, they don't question it.

    Racism will always be with us because there will always be people who want to blame their own less-than-perfect circumstances on someone else, but I think it will fade as a significant factor in our politics.

  • ValdVin on October 24, 2012 11:11 AM:


    I want to tangent on that: We've had 3+ years of "winners" of the world's worst reality show, "The Next Black Republican!" Michael Steele, Allan West, etc.

    If in another universe Obama had almost indistinguishable policy proposals, but had an (R) next to his name, he'd be a shoo-in with the media, who'd construct great narratives for him now, as much as they did for McCain and continue to do for "coin flipper" Mitt.

  • Rabbler on October 24, 2012 1:22 PM:

    Don't forget your heritage of shame, cracker.

  • yellowdog on October 24, 2012 5:16 PM:

    Like Ed, I am a Georgia Democrat with a fondness for Sam Nunn and John Lewis. The old base of the Democratic Party in the state has been shaken to its foundations over the past two decades--as older white Protestant voters have fled the party and as a stable core of mobilized conservative voters dominate the state.

    A few points to keep in mind, though:

    --Georgia is about 40th nationally in proportion of eligible voters actually registered. There is a large disengaged population. This sideline population is more favorable to Democrats than to Republicans.

    --Georgia has a long early voting period. It helped Obama get 47.0% of the vote here in 2008--without even mounting an effort. A low- to mid-40s Democratic electoral base in the state is pretty solid and consistent--and stronger than the Democratic position in states like Alabama or Mississippi--though not yet comparable to battlegrounds like North Carolina or Virginia.

    --Overall share of the non-white population in the state is growing.

    --Democrats do much better in the state when there is larger engagement and larger turnout. High participation in 2008 gave Democrats some decent outcomes locally--even forcing the slick Senator Saxby Chambliss into a runoff--while low participation in 2010 saw a miserable outcome for Democrats.

    --There is substantial transience in much of the Georgia population. People enter and leave the state at a fairly high rate, and they come from all over--so the state is less tied to lifetime 'Dixie' voters than it has been in the past.

    --State's economic future is more reliant on medical sector, trade, finance than ever before--and GOP education policies will eventually pinch these sectors and perhaps change some views. There is great potential for a pro-business Mark Warner-type Democrat in Georgia to mobilize the sideliners and new arrivals and draw off some soft Republicans.

    There is a lot of work for Georgia Democrats to do in the next few years. Picture is not favorable now, but it stands to get better.

  • Anonymous on October 24, 2012 9:22 PM:

    "Policies that will improve the lives of those who earn between $50-100K are the key to that effort."

    That's already been done by many Dems. It doesn't help. Because when the policies begin to help them, they start thinking they are rich and can afford to begin voting Republican.