Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Consolation Prize: White Males New Swing Vote

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February 6, 2008

c.2008 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON — This year, for the first time, the Democratic Party will nominate a candidate for president who is not a white male. But the results from Super Tuesday contests coast to coast suggest that white males, like a sovereign who gets to name his successor, may be the decisive swing vote in this historic battle between a black man and a white woman.  

While the results fluctuated wildly state to state, it appears Illinois Sen. Barack Obama narrowly won the white male vote in battling New York Sen. Hillary Clinton to a Super Tuesday draw.

Indeed, white males “are holding the balance of power in the Democratic primaries and caucuses,” said David Redlawsk, a University of Iowa political scientist who was elected a John Edwards delegate in his state’s caucuses and has written about the intersection of gender and politics. “White males are playing a fairly important role here,” he said, if for no other reason than they are the one large group yet to obviously choose up sides.

Since the New Hampshire primary, white women have been consistently siding with Clinton. They represent a disproportionate share of the Democratic electorate because they are both more likely to be Democrats and more likely to vote.

Black voters are backing Obama in numbers trending toward the unanimous.

And in Super Tuesday primaries in New Jersey, New York, California, Arizona and New Mexico, Latinos rallied to Clinton by large margins. (Only in his home state of Illinois was Obama able to win half the Latino vote.)

But white males, as the Super Tuesday results made plain in complicated fashion, are up for grabs.

According to state-by-state exit polls, Obama handily defeated Clinton with white males in California (52 percent to 34 percent), Connecticut (57 to 40), New Mexico (59 to 34), Utah (64 to 29) and Illinois (59 to 37).

But Clinton swamped Obama with white males in New Jersey (58 to 39), Missouri (55 to 41), Oklahoma (55 to 32), Tennessee (58 to 32), Arkansas (74 to 20) and New York (52 to 43).

Meanwhile, in Delaware, Arizona and Massachusetts, the white male vote divided evenly between the two.

This is new terrain for Caucasian men.

Since George Washington, white males in America have been secure in the knowledge that the president of the United States was going to look like them, more or less. No longer.

What’s more, as white men voting in Democratic primaries and caucuses make their decisions, they face the prospect of being poked and prodded just like any other demographic subgroup.

Before last month’s South Carolina primary, for instance, journalists visited black beauty salons in the Palmetto State to report the “cross pressures” on black woman voters. Would they vote their race or their gender? As it turned out, black women then and since have overwhelming chosen Obama.

The time may have arrived for the media to descend on “white barbershops,” to find out how white males are coping with the cross pressure to vote their race or their gender.

Obama’s big win in Georgia was the first result reported Tuesday night and CNN analyst David Gergen, a top adviser in the Reagan and Clinton White Houses, marveled about the history being made. Here was a black candidate for president winning 45 percent of the white male vote, to 48 percent for Clinton in the Deep South.

Lou Dobbs, who was hosting the coverage, warned against stereotyping Southern white males. But Gergen, noting that he grew up in North Carolina, repeated that this was truly historic.


Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta, notes that most white males in Georgia vote Republican, and that white males constituted only 16 percent of Tuesday’s Democratic electorate there.

“That’s very, very small,” Black said.

By comparison, white women were 27 percent of Georgia’s Democratic voters; black men, 19 percent; black women, 33 percent.

Black further noted that Hillary Clinton is not an especially appealing candidate for many white men in the South. Yet next door to Georgia in Alabama, which Obama also won on the basis of overwhelming black support, Clinton defeated Obama among white males, 73 percent to 23 percent.

Race and gender are only part of the story.

Matthew Lassiter, a historian of race at the University of Michigan, notes that the strongest strain of Obama’s appeal is generational. On his campus, he said, it’s hard to find a student who is not for Obama.

Across the board, exit polls indicate that Obama does better with younger whites and Clinton does better with older whites.

For example, in last month’s primary in South Carolina, in a three-way race that still included former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Obama won 27 percent of the white male vote. But he won a majority of the vote of all whites under 30.

While Obama also tends to do better with wealthier, better-educated whites, and those who are political independents, Tuesday’s results indicate he succeeded as well in picking up the support of many white men whose first choice was Edwards. Edwards had sounded more populist themes, but dropped out of the race last week.

Charles Gallagher, a professor of race and ethnic relations at Georgia State, lives in Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands, a neighborhood with very few blacks in the middle of a very black city. Gallagher, who is white, said both he and his wife wrestled with their decision before voting for Obama. Both felt a little guilty about not voting for a woman.

“This could be a breakthrough for my two daughters — telling them you can be president,” Gallagher said.

But on his way to the polls, he saw a black Obama supporter yelling “Hillary Clinton, more of the same,” and figured that electing a black man president would be a bigger breakthrough than electing a white woman.

Even so, Gallagher said, for many white men the choice may involve even more complicated processing, right down to the subconscious.

Looking at Obama, they may see a black man who is not Al Sharpton, or a black man who is, in fact, biracial — with a white mother. Their thinking: “He’s a twofer, he’s black and he’s me.”

For those same white men, white women are familiar objects of love — wives, mothers, daughters. But they can also be sources of friction — the boss, the department chair, or the same wife, mother or daughter on a bad day.

Who knows but that Hillary Clinton’s support from white males depends at least a little bit on the quality of those interactions at home in the days or hours before they vote?

“There are a lot of edges to this,” Gallagher said.


Written by jonathantilove

October 22, 2008 at 3:01 am

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