Dog Whistle Politics: What if Only White People Voted?

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After the 2012 election, Buzzfeed put together a series of electoral maps that showed what the results would have looked like if we didn’t have universal suffrage. A couple of them went viral, including this one, which depicts the election results if only white men voted, which was the case before the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870:

…and this one, which depicts the outcome if only white men and women voted:

Some people looked at these maps and concluded that they proved white America unwilling to vote for a black president, but that conclusion was far too simplistic. The reality is that the Democratic Party has had a structural disadvantage among white voters that is, at least in part, a result of the success of Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” — dog whistle politics. While Obama got 39 percent of the white vote in 2012, in 2008 he grabbed 43 percent which was two points higher than John Kerry’s share in a losing effort in 2004 and just one point less than Al Gore’s share when he won the popular vote in 2000.

Ultimately, race is just a single variable. Just as Democrats struggle with the white vote, Republicans have been burdened with a longstanding gender gap. Fifty-five percent of women voted for Obama in 2012, a point less than he garnered in his first election. Kerry won 51 percent of women voters in 2004 — a big reason he lost the election — and Gore got 55 percent in 2000.

A similar gap exists between married couples (Romney took 56 percent) and singles (62 percent of whom went for Obama in 2012). Church attendance provides another way to slice up the electorate — 59 percent of voters who worship at least once a week favored Romney and 62 percent who never set foot in a church favored Obama. There are similar divides with income and age.

In 2008, Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz put together multiple variables to define the Republican Party’s base, which most observers agree has been shrinking along with various social and demographic changes. According to Abramowitz, the GOP’s most loyal supporters — statistically — are not white people, nor married people, nor those who identify as Christians. Rather, it’s married white people who also identify as Christians.

Just 30 or 40 years ago, this demographic dominated American elections, but split its vote more evenly between the parties. Since then, married white Christians have become far more reliably Republican, but also fewer in number. “Married white Christians now make up less than half of all voters in the United States and less than one-fifth of voters under the age of 30,” wrote Abramowitz.

The declining proportion of married white Christians in the electorate has important political implications because in recent years married white Christians have been among the most loyal supporters of the Republican Party. In American politics today, whether you are a married white Christian is a much stronger predictor of your political preferences than your gender or your class — the two demographic characteristics that dominate much of the debate on contemporary American politics.

This is something to keep in mind when people talk about the “white vote.”

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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