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GOP Sees Opportunity With White Voters After Gates Saga

Last updated: July 31, 2020 | August 07, 2009 | Elisa Mueller
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President Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and James Crowley share a beer on July 30. (White House photo) President Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and James Crowley share a beer on July 30. (White House photo)

Two weeks after President Obama said that Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly” by arresting Harvard University Prof. Henry Louis Gates for arguing with them inside his home, Republicans are still taking stock of their unexpected political gift.

A Pew Research poll released on July 30 found the president’s approval rating among white voters slipping seven points, from 53 percent to 46 percent, explicitly because of their disappointment in the Gates remarks. A CNN/Opinion Research poll released on August 4 found that six out of 10 white voters disagreed with the president’s remarks. A Quinnipiac poll released on August 6 found that white voters, by a 2-1 margin, believed that the president had “acted stupidly” in talking about Gates.

Image by: Matt Mahurin Image by: Matt Mahurin

“He would have been a whole lot wiser to shut up,” said Roy Fletcher, a Republican strategist based in Baton Rouge, La. “He got really close to losing the image he has as a post-racial president. For a few days, the question for a lot of people became, ‘Wait a minute. Is he the president of the United States? Or is he just the president of minorities?’ And that was a really unfortunate thing.”

As the Gates saga finally fades from the news cycle–few pollsters or strategists reached by TWI thought it had lasting power, and one compared its short-lived nature to the frothy Gary Condit scandal of 2001–it’s left Republicans encouraged about their chances of whittling down the Democrats’ House and Senate majorities in 2010. The mini-controversy put into focus a fact about the 2009, 2010 and 2011 electorates that Democrats don’t enjoy talking about and Republicans don’t enjoy bragging about. They will be, as Fletcher put it, “older and whiter” than the electorate that put Obama and most Democrats on the Hill into office in 2008. As they try to regain statewide offices in this year’s New Jersey and Virginia elections, and as they look ahead to the 2010 midterms, GOP strategists are watching for opportunities to turn white swing voters against the Democrats, and to activate the conservative white voters who turned out sluggishly in Ohio and other 2008 swing states.

Doing that requires a gentle touch. Five days Obama made his remarks about Gates, and three days after he admitted that he “maligned” Sgt. James Crowley, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.)–a conservative member of the House GOP leadership who represents a district that voted for the president in 2008–introduced a resolution demanding an official presidential apology to the Cambridge police. McCotter got a burst of media attention for the resolution, but drew only mixed support from constituents and only three Republican co-sponsors in the House.

McCotter’s office declined to make the congressman available for an interview, suggesting that the issue had run its course and that the resolution had run aground. According to one House Republican staffer, it foundered because members worried that the situation was too racially charged. Only one of the GOP’s official party organizations, the National Republican Congressional Committee, nudged Democrats on the issue, with one press release directed at six Democratic members of the Massachusetts delegation in the House. The NRCC dropped the issue thereafter. By and large, the outrage took care of itself.

“Let’s face it,” said Michael Graham, a Boston radio host, in an interview with TWI. “During a national, televised press conference, the president had an Al Sharpton moment. In November 2008 he was not ‘our’ president for black voters and ‘their’ president for white voters. If he becomes, for middle-class white Americans, ‘their’ president, that’s devastating, that’s a killer.”

The problem for Democrats is that the white voters who might sour on the president because, in part, of the race issue are more likely to turn out to vote than the young and black voters who made up his margin of victory in 2008. On Tuesday, Public Policy Polling released a survey of Virginia’s 2009 statewide races which showed Democrats losing badly because of lagging enthusiasm from their base. Fifty-two percent of likely voters told the pollster that they had supported McCain in 2008 to only 41 percent who said that they’d supported Obama. In November, the state that gave Obama a solid 53-46 victory over McCain.

“Virginia has a racially polarized electorate,” explained Tom Jensen, a pollster at PPP. “In 2008, African-American voters made up 21 percent of the overall vote. If they fall back to 16 percent–that was the turnout level in 2004–that’s an overall 5.5 point drop for [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Creigh Deeds right off the bat.” (African-American support for Democrats is so lopsided that it costs them more than 1 point of overall support for every point of the overall turnout decline.)

Republican and Democratic strategists alike are aware of numbers like those, and closely watching Virginia and New Jersey for some hint of how the electorate will behave without Barack Obama on the top on the ballot. Tellingly, the NRCC’s broad list of 70 possible House Democratic targets in 2010 includes, along with the expected bumper crop of “wave babies” elected in 2008, nine members of Congress elected before the Obama win who represent Southern districts with sizable numbers of black voters. A close look at the list, as well as other potential Republican targets, reveals dozens of seats where the historic African-American turnout of 2008 either pushed Democratic challengers over the finish line or gave extra job security for longtime incumbents.

Republicans and Democrats alike pointed to several seats in the South and the rust belt as ripe GOP targets in an electorate where, as Fletcher put it, “Obama nation doesn’t show up.” Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), a conservative Democrat whose district is 44.5 percent African-American, sailed to a 2-1 re-election victory in 2008, but he’s on the NRCC target list for 2010. One Republican strategist suggested that Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), whose district is 47.5 percent African-American, could be taken down if white turnout stays strong but black turnout slumps. “People forget, that was a Bush district,” the strategist pointed out, suggesting that the easy re-election victory of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) in a December 2008 runoff was a better screen for voter turnout than the November 2008 election, when Chambliss was held below 50 percent of the vote.

Strategists from both parties pointed out House districts from Connecticut to Alabama where the high African-American turnout of 2008 pulled Democrats over the top. African-American voters in Connecticut’s 4th district, who make up 10.9 percent of the vote, helped elect Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) In Maryland’s 1st district, the 11.2 percent African-American population helped Rep. Frank Kratovil (D-Md.) to an upset victory. “[Tom] Perriello and [Glenn] Nye are gone,” mused one pessimistic Democratic strategist in Virginia, referring to Democrats elected last year in districts with African-American populations of 21.4 percent and 23.9 percent respectively.

The Republican opportunity extends to Senate races where troubled incumbents or conservative candidates in states that voted for Obama may contend with a more favorable electorate. “Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) would be in a lot of trouble if Barack Obama was at the top of the ballot,” said PPP’s Jensen, referring to two states where African-Americans made up more than 29 percent and 23 percent of the vote in 2008.

Fletcher and other strategists were confident that an Obama backlash was brewing even if race was removed from the equation. The white senior citizens who are turning against the president are doing so because of worries about health care. Conservatives were not ready to bet on Obama further weakening white support for Democrats with another Gates-style gaffe. “The lock’s been jiggled, but the door hasn’t been broken down,” said Graham, who suggested that the Department of Justice’s decision to drop a case against the radical New Black Panther Party might be hurting white support for Obama if it got more coverage.

But some strategists were ready to declare the GOP’s demographic advantage. Fletcher pointed to a July 20 study of Census data that crunched numbers from 2008 and found that, while minority voter turnout surged, overall turnout declined. Many conservative voters white voters simply didn’t turn out. One example of the decline? Barack Obama beat John McCain in Ohio by 258,897 votes, but he only won 73,624 more votes than George W. Bush in his 2004 run against John Kerry.

“Three to four percent of the white vote didn’t come out last time,” said Fletcher. “They’re coming out this time.”

Elisa Mueller | Elisa Mueller was born in Kansas City, Missouri, to a mother who taught reading and a father who taught film. As a result, she spent an excessive amount of her childhood reading books and watching movies. She went to the University of Kansas for college, where she earned bachelor's degrees in English and journalism. She moved to New York City and worked for Entertainment Weekly magazine for ten years, visiting film sets all over the world.

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