White Voters and Racial Framing: How Many Will Vote for Senator Obama?

The Gallup polling organization recently released its analysis of 19,076 registered voters’ views, from a survey conducted over several weeks in March. ChartThe data are sorted by party identification, political strength, and racial group. The overall percent in this large sample is 45 percent for Senator Obama and 46 percent for Senator McCain. (The percentage for McCain is yet higher in the ongoing Rasmussen tracking poll.)

A racial factor seems clear in these data. Black voters give Senator Obama a huge 90 percentage of their votes, and moderate and liberal white Democrats also give him a large majority (66-82 percent) of their votes–with conservative white Democrats giving a lower 50 percent of their votes. Hispanic voters give him a bit more at 54 percent. However, the white independents give him only 25 percent and the white conservative and moderate Republicans give small percentages (5-17 percent), the latter as expected.

Troubling in such voter data for Senator Obama’s campaign is that non-Hispanic whites give Senator Obama only 37 percent of their votes, significantly less than they have given successful Democratic (and, of course, white) presidential candidates in the past. That McCain, who has been channeling some unpopular Bush-type views and who has been visible little of late in the mass media largely because of the Democratic primary campaign, is doing this well among white registered voters – who, ironically, say they want change in a country doing badly now  – strongly suggests that the centuries-old white racial framing of African Americans is again rearing its ugly head in U.S. politics. The negative racial framing of African Americans in the society, especially in the mass media, may be affecting some proportion of other non-black voters as well.

These data also may exaggerate the white voters’ percentage for Senator Obama. There is a problem in all opinion surveys like this one; the problem is that some whites are probably not telling the truth about their being likely to vote for Senator Obama (or even their uncertainty), what the media pundits often quaintly call the “Bradley effect” (in reality, the “racism effect”). We know from substantial social science research (here and here) that whites often do hide their actual views in surveys that touch directly on their racial views.

If Senator Obama is the Democratic nominee, as now seems likely, there will almost certainly be several more major racialized media attacks on him*, and these will also play into that white racist frame and scare off yet more white voters. Some time back, I predicted the viciously racist attack by the white-controlled media — that used Dr. Jeremiah Wright’s learned views that were critical of this society’s racism — pretty much as it occurred, and these will come up again if Senator Obama is the Democratic candidate. One negative image the Wright-type attacks suggest in many white voters’ minds is one central to the centuries-old white racist frame: the “dangerous black man.”

What we need in this society now is an open, overt, and assertive countering in all our institutions, including the often racially biased mass media, of these recurring white-racist views, images, and other white-framed perspectives. We need a great many people to speak against the kind of racist attacks used on Dr. Wright and on Senator Obama and to constantly disrupt conventional racist joking, commentaries, and performances across our everyday settings. Anti-racist whites can help lead the way on this.  Whites who hear or see racist performances by white friends and relatives, which happen millions of times a week in the all-white backstage regions of this country (as well as in multiracial frontstage areas), need to speak out often and assertively.  As I see it, such assertive anti-racist action is absolutely essential if we are to counter the continuing racist constructions of this country’s first major Black presidential candidate and to help him have a real chance to win. We do indeed need aggressive anti-racist actions and organization across the nation.

(*Note: I can see on certain websites what the new racialized attacks will likely be, but will not discuss them publicly here, so as not to put new ideas in the heads of possible attackers.)


  1. James Chriss

    Joe, interesting parsing of the poll data on Obama and McCain. But it appears to me that a bigger factor in the democratic nomination race is not racism, but sexism. Polls have consistently shown that Americans are more likely to vote for a black man for president than they are a woman. Last poll I saw was 76% would vote for a black man, while only 63% would vote for a woman. So it’s actually Senator Clinton that is facing an unprecedented and historical burden running for the highest office in the land, rather than Senator Obama. In fact, with the heavy media bias against Senator Clinton, fueld at least in part by sexism and misogny, it is amazing to me that she is still as close as she in this nomination battle.

  2. Joe Author

    I agree there is sexism too, as polls have long shown, as you say, significant numbers who will not vote for a woman. I accent Senator Obama here since it appears Clinton cannot win now. And I think whites are more likely to hide their racial feelings than men (and some women) are to hide their feelings about a woman president. There is certainly huge sexism in the media targeting Clinton.

  3. Seattle in Texas

    The sexism thing and Hillary. Sorry to bring up the PNW again–but 1/2 of my current life is consumed by this area, so my discussions are limited–even though it doesn’t fit with the whole North and South thing, hopefully it still adds something…. But in talking to people (mostly females) back in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (who were all not Clinton fans in the first place), they overtly expressed their increasingly harsher sentiments more so after she cried. Interestingly, I haven’t heard any criticisms of the cry down here…but have heard the racism with relation to Obama. There are definitely racist Hillary supporters up there too—the white feminist stuff…*gag*, but whatever—I am thinking, or rather really wondering, if the by and large racist Feminists might very well correct for the “Democratic” men who wouldn’t vote for a women presidential candidate in terms of Clinton support (nation wide). But from those I know, it’s not necessarily or only about gender–it’s about character, etc. (Washington has both a female senator and governor and they are very supportive of them).

    And just because she’s a female doesn’t mean she or her campaign should be excused from being racist. Now, some former Clinton supporters up in that region have switched their support to Obama because of the racist strategies and attacks—so, she/her campaign pushing some of her own supporters on their own. If Obama were using sexist tactics in his politics, his supporters would be very critical of him as many are also feminists and humanists—it wouldn’t fly…. In terms of the media…no comment just for the sake of brevity.

    On a different note, the breakdown above is great and agree with how the supporters should respond to racism in daily lives and as a collective…groovy stuff here.

  4. Louise

    I don’t like how this poll only splits up non-hispanic whites according to their political affiliation, as if only non-white voters can be categorized by race according to who they’re voting for president.

  5. Jessica

    very good points. you write “non-Hispanic whites give Senator Obama only 37 percent of their votes, significantly less than they have given successful Democratic (and, of course, white) presidential candidates in the past.” Do you have any evidence to back this up? Thanks

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