By Bill Bradford
Two years into the presidency of Barack Obama, and given that February is Black History Month and Monday was President’s Day, I had originally intended to write an article that looked back at his 25 months in office. I wanted to review his efficacy as president, the difference between Candidate Obama and President Obama, and the historical meaning his election still holds for our African American brothers and sisters.
However, an offhand comment I heard last weekend while riding the Boston subway caused me to flashback to the campaign of 2008, and the consternation I felt after reading and listening to right-wing pundits, specifically, Rush Limbaugh. The gist of the comment was: ‘It’ll be hard votin’ Obama outta office if all the blacks show up again.” This comment reminded me of a declaration made by Limbaugh to Politico on October 19, 2008. Fulminating about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama, Limbaugh said, “Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race... OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with” (Source: Politico).
Later, on the same website after Obama won the election, Limbaugh fumed about “black racism.” Not racism toward blacks, but the idea that blacks ONLY voted for Obama because he himself was black. And as recently as last month, Limbaugh was still beating that tired drum, declaring on his radio show, “[For] the media, the Democrat adults and the establishment, the Clinton years were their Nirvana. And if Obama had not been African American, he would never have been elected” (Source: The Root)
My initial reaction was...DUH! Let’s face it, all of us have a tendency to feel a kinship toward those who share a physical, cultural, ethnic, or religious background as ourselves. I am a disabled person, and regardless of party, I would give a disabled candidate a close look, like I did with Bob Dole in 1996 and McCain in the 2000. However, by 2008, McCain had become so “un-mavericky” he had lost me. And I’m sorry, Governor Palin, but lugging a disabled infant around like a campaign prop, especially when you axed funding for Alaska’s special needs kids didn’t engender your “roguish” ways to the disability community – see the Sept. 3, 2008 edition of the Daily Kos.
However, my “duh” moment didn’t last long. Notre Dame Professor Darren Davis, a specialist on race and politics, wrote in the Huffington Post (Oct. 19, 2008):
“There is nothing racially obvious about Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama. I have read Colin Powell's comments and he did not at anytime allude to race being a factor in his endorsement. I think what we are seeing is a sense of racial stereotyping of two ostensibly racially transcendent political figures. There has always been a stereotype that all black people will stick together. It seems that this is somewhat in play here, given that they only factor connecting Colin Powell and Barack Obama is race.”
And something else didn’t add up...the statistics. Davis was right; Obama’s skin color couldn’t have been the only factor. After all, Bill Clinton was fondly called “America’s First Black President,” and African Americans, since LBJ and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, have overwhelmingly voted Democratic.
I was able to begin contextualizing these voter trends in the spring of 2010, while reading E.J. Dionne’s Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith & Politics After the Religious Right for noted Harvard Divinity School Professor Harvey Cox. Dionne goes into great demographic detail about the 2004 presidential election, breaking down the voting trends along lines of religion, class, race, and ethnicity. In that election, George Bush won 58 to 41 percent of the white vote over John Kerry. Kerry won the black vote 88 percent to 11 percent (source: Dionne, page 52). This actually was a gain for Bush. In 2000, he received 10 percent of the black vote (source: CBS News).
Then, I did my own statistical analysis of the 2008 election. Obama won the black vote 95 percent to 4 percent, a seven-point gain over Kerry (source: CNN). McCain lost the white vote 46 percent to 53 percent, a 15-point loss from Bush (source: Slate.com). So, at first blush, Limbaugh was fractionally correct. Apparently, a handful of African American voters were influenced by skin color, casting their votes for Obama, while a larger percent of white voters were more “color blind” also casting their votes for Obama. Nevertheless, although the “black bump” certainly had an impact, McCain’s loss is directly attributable to the wave of new non-black voters who cast their lot with Obama.
If we dig a little deeper into the statistics presented above, an interesting trend emerges. Among the southern Democrats who voted for Kerry in 2004, Obama saw a drop of over 12 percent in 2008 (source: Slate.com). In total, this accounted for about a shift of three percent of white voters – who normally would have voted for a Democrat – to vote for a Republican. In whole numbers, counting first-time and non-traditional voters, Obama gained 2.9 million black voters, 1.5 million Latino/a voters, and 1.9 million voters under the age of 25. Meanwhile, 780,000 less Republicans cast votes in 2008, as compared to 2004, and overall the percentage of total voters who are white has been on a steady decline averaging three percent per year since their high of 93 percent in 1968.
What all of this number-crunching means is that the combined defection of white southern Democrats to the Republican Party, added to the number of Republicans who stayed home, equaled about the same percentage points as the “black bump.” What actually won the election for Obama was his ability to turn out 6.3 million first-time (or irregular) voters, who overwhelmingly voted Democratic. Limbaugh’s logic is a fallacy. Black gains and white losses basically canceled each other out. It was the Latino/a and young voters who were the engines of success.
“Si Se Puede!”
Fortunately, most right-minded Americans don’t view things in the same distorted color spectrum as Rush Limbaugh. There were many factors, other than skin color, that made Obama a more desirable choice among the newbies and independents.
First, he was NOT Republican. Bush Jr. will arguably go down as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, launching two unpopular wars, one illegal and one ill-supported. McCain supported both conflicts (but to his credit, he disagreed with Cheney and Rumsfield on the proper way to execute the wars – he rightly called for more troops). Second, among the Latino/a voters, McCain was a flip-flopper on immigration reform. Promises made as a senator were most ardently denied as a candidate. Third, the moral ground had shifted under the Republicans. Among young voters, McCain was a backslider about LGBT rights and environmental reforms. Such hot-button issues like gay marriage and abortion (the bread and butter of the Rove-Gingrich calculus), were just not that important to young and independent voters, and the growing concern about the environment and alternative energy was (and still is). And fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the economy was in the toilet. Bush and his cronies on Capital Hill managed to drive the money train off the tracks, plunging the U.S. economy into its worst decline since the Great Depression. McCain, in his unseemly appeal to the far right, looked more and more like a clone of Bush.
It is always unwise, immoral, and offensive to make blanket claims of racism if you don’t have all the facts. Dig into all the variables and ignore exterior appearances. In fact, if you want to go purely by genetics, by a statistical sample as a representative sample of this country’s demographics, Obama should have been our fifth African American president. Also, there should have been approximately 23 females, seven Latino/as, and a few Asian, disabled and LGBT Commander-in-Chiefs. Who, in this measure, has been the most bigoted?
2008 was a perfect storm of opportunity for Democrats, so much so that even Dennis Kucinich, a Muslim, or an atheist could have given McCain a run for his money. Wait! Who am I kidding? No one would ever vote for a short guy...
Bill Bradford is a former newspaper editor, reporter, and author. He is also a disability activist and the Senior Vice President of Little People of American, the world's largest support and advocacy organization for people with dwarfism. He is currently a master's student at Harvard Divinity School, studying literature, ethics and liberation theology in the context of disability and interfaith dialog.