Race is a hot-button issue in 2012

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 5/16/2012, 8:41 a.m.

Race is a hot-button issue in 2012

A hanging effigy that looked suspiciously like President Obama on a flatbed truck in New York City and the sign on the Peach Oyster Bar in Unincorporated Draketown, Ga., “I do not support the N... in the White House” normally could be written off by now as the pro-forma crackpot bigotry of the professional Obama loathers.

Not a week goes by without some juvenile demonstration of their fear, hatred and ignorance toward the president. But what set off a bell is that New York City is a Democratic party bastion, and there is some faint hope that Obama might be competitive in Georgia this election year. But the racial outburst in these places points to a danger that could cause damage to Obama’s presidential drive in 2012. That’s the absolute refusal of some otherwise rock-solid white Democrats to back him.

This was confirmed late last year in a Harvard study that found that race cost Obama 3 to 5 percentage points of the popular vote in the 2008 election. Put another way without the racial animus, Obama would have routed GOP presidential foe John McCain in the popular vote. The percentage drop-off wasn’t just bipartisan but was heavily weighted toward Democrats who simply stayed home rather than vote for Obama.

Obama fortunately didn’t need their votes. The stratospheric turnout among blacks, young people and the majority support he got from centrist independents offset the defecting white Democrats. He also got a huge boost from widespread GOP disaffection, and even disgust, from many in the GOP due to Bush, the GOP’s dismal record on the economy, two wars, GOP sex and corruption scandals, and due to McCain’s pick of Palin as his vice-president running mate.

But those overwhelmingly favorable conditions for Obama aren’t there in 2012. He will again get an off-the-charts percentage of black votes, a decisive majority of Hispanic votes and a significant majority of the youth and women’s vote. But the election won’t be decided solely on percentages, it will be decided on numbers. He got them in 2008. But this time around with a relatively unified and motivated GOP, Obama will need insurance. The insurance is a unified Democratic Party; the majority of those are still centrist white Democrats.

Obama simply can’t afford a repeat of what happened in the Democratic primaries in 2008. In the Democratic primary in Ohio, Obama’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton beat him out, and she did it mainly with white votes. But that wasn’t the whole story. Nearly one-quarter of whites in Ohio flatly said race did matter in voting. Presumably that meant that they would not vote for a black candidate no matter how politically attractive or competent he was.

Four years later, the warning sign is still there that an undetermined number of white conservative Democrats have not relented one bit in their racial hostility toward Obama. In recent interviews with Democratic voters in Ohio, a small number flatly said they still wouldn’t vote for him, and race was the reason. If even a small percentage of them meant it, the result could be a percentage point or two, dropped from his Democratic vote total. This could be devastating in a state where the race is projected to be close and absolutely crucial for either Obama or Romney to win.