Lest We Forget: Race in the Presidential Race

Sarah Underwood—

With Super Tuesday barely a week away, it’s time for media speculation to go from a sport to a circus. While news coverage in the months (and years) leading up to an election can seem repetitive, and while primaries are sometimes inconclusive indicators of the final candidate, the elections occurring just before and on Super Tuesday create a justifiably exciting contest. Mitt Romney has remained a steady candidate as his GOP opponents have risen and fell over the past year (Herman who?), but his home state, Michigan, is holding its primary tomorrow, exactly a week before Super Tuesday. As CNN points out, “A Romney loss in Michigan could destroy [his] veneer of inevitability and blow the race wide open.” If that happens, Rick Santorum could very well come out the victor the following week.

Super Tuesday was an effective, if surprising, predictor of the U.S.’s last presidential election, as The End of Race? Obama, 2008, and Racial Politics in America by Donald R. Kinder and Allison Dale-Riddle shows. Before, most people assumed that Hillary Clinton was the most likely candidate for the Democratic Party in 2008. Even though she was generally perceived as less charismatic than Barack Obama, with voters believing that Obama “says what he believes” and that Clinton “says what people want to hear,” nobody was quite sure the relatively younger and inexperienced Obama could win. “In December, Clinton had led Obama among Democrats nationwide by some 20 percentage points. At the end of January…on the eve of Super Tuesday, the lead was gone.” 2008’s Super Tuesday left Obama with the lead, however slight (he won 13 states and territories; Clinton 10), and the next day the gap became even more apparent. Whereas Clinton admitted she’d had to loan her campaign $5 million, Obama had raised $32 million. And then, of course, Obama won.

In a race that came down to either a woman or an African American, the 2008 Democratic primaries would have resulted in a historic outcome either way. Kinder and Dale-Riddle are concerned with how groups function in a political environment, and the election gave us a unique opportunity to see how two major social cleavages affect the current climate. After analyzing the impact of race and gender on the 2008, they found that the election did not, in fact, predict the end of race. It did not necessarily even predict the end of gender, but the authors found that Clinton had a much harder time mobilizing female voters to her camp—her “natural” base—than Obama did black voters. Women voters seemed just as likely to vote for Obama as Clinton.

In contrast, being a woman did not hurt Clinton’s campaigns as much as being black hurt Obama’s. Adjusting for as many factors besides race as possible, the authors calculate that while Obama may have gained a maximum of 2.2% votes among African Americans, he lost 10.2% of votes among whites. Race, then, lost him more votes than it earned him. Clinton did eventually concede the race and endorse Obama, but the election was close. Kinder and Dale-Riddle also claim that Obama should have won against Senator McCain with 60.7% of the total vote, an unusual landslide, but his skin color made the competition much narrower. They also point out that, with a white mother and Kenyan father who voluntarily came to the U.S., as well as an education from historically white, Ivy-league schools, Obama does not have life experiences or a history that is common to the African American experience. The black community was not even sure that he was, using the unfortunate phrase, “black enough.” With some suspicion from his own race, compounded with the more obvious distrust from the white community, the 2008 election was not the end of race, but another step in the political and social fight for equality.


Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

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