Obama’s victory is indeed an historic breakthrough for U.S. politics.
In a country that enforced a system of legalized racism until just
40 years ago, and that was founded on white supremacy, black slavery
and Native genocide, the election of the first black president is
cause for jubilation.
significance of Obama’s victory is accentuated by the fact that
not only is he an outstanding individual with liberal politics and
a community organizer’s instincts, but he is also leading a potentially
historic realignment of U.S. politics.
realignment could not come at a better time. Beset by a deep economic
crisis, now is the time for progressive structural changes to the
international and national socio-economic landscape. But such changes
will be impossible without enormous political strength.
President Obama can help orchestrate a turnaround of the economic
crisis now facing the country, indeed the world, will be revealed
in the coming years. But he has already made a major contribution
to changing the pattern of U.S. politics, a pattern that was set
by slavery and enabled conservative Republicans to dominate the
presidency for the last forty years.
the development of a mass progressive movement with its own agenda
will be critical to consolidating that realignment, and to winning
systemic change in the years to come.
The Color of Election 2008
magnitude of Obama’s victory has led to much hyperbole about the
end of racism and the advent of a colorblind society. This notion
deserves closer examination lest Obama’s victory become an obstacle,
rather than an opening, to future racial progress.
of the press has focused on celebrating the willingness of many
whites to elect a black president. But just how colorblind is the
the fact that the Republicans had failed miserably, even on their
own terms, and run the country virtually into the ground, whites
still voted for McCain by 55 to 43. In stark contrast, blacks voted
for Obama by 95 to 4, Latinos went for Obama by 66 to 32 and Asians
backed Obama by 61 to 35. (1)
2008, the white vote was virtually identical to election 2000 and
continued to exert a strong conservative pull on the electorate
while the votes of peoples of color and young people of all races
headed powerfully in a more progressive direction.
color lines, in life and politics, are alive and well.
peoples of color made the biggest shifts in their voting between
2004 and 2008. It was they who proved decisive in Obama’s victory.
Left to white voters, John McCain would have won a landslide twelve-point
Americans voted for Obama by an astonishing 95 to 4, a fourteen-point
swing for the Democrats compared to 2004. (2) Many a pundit has
dismissed this result as a knee-jerk racial solidarity vote for
Obama. How soon they forget that the majority of black voters favored
Hillary Clinton for the many months leading up to the Iowa primary.
of the mainstream media declared that Latinos were too racist to
vote for Obama. They pointed to the large Latino primary vote for
Clinton as “proof.”
resoundingly put the lie to these cynics by voting for Obama by
66 to 32, a huge sixteen-point swing to the Democrats compared to
2004. Even a 58 percent majority of Cubans in Florida, traditionally
solidly Republican, went for Obama.
led the way toward Obama, casting 68 percent of their votes for
him and only 30 percent for McCain. Latino voters under 30 went
for Obama by 76 to 24, perhaps indicating the direction of future
Latino voting patterns.
swung Democratic by fourteen points over 2004, voting for Obama
61 to 35. The political trajectory of Asian voters has been striking.
In 1992, Bill Clinton received only 31 percent of the Asian vote.
Since then Asians have steadily moved Democratic, reaching a highpoint
much for the pundits who believed that Latinos and Asians would
never unite behind black leadership. These results amount to a massive
progressive motion by peoples of color.
the white vote swung toward Obama and the Democrats by five points
compared to 2004. White voters under 30 were the only age group
among whites to favor Obama. They voted for him by 54 to 44. All
other whites voted for McCain by about 57 to 41.
most anemic swing was made by white women, who voted for McCain
by 53 to 46, moving a mere four points toward the Democrats, This
was particularly disappointing in light of their ten point swing
to Bush from 2000 to 2004, a change that accounted for Bush’s victory
in that year.
men favored McCain by a bigger margin, 57 to 41, but this represented
a sizable nine-point swing to the Democrats compared to 2004 when
they voted for Bush overwhelmingly, 62 to 37.
Obama carried the white vote in only 18 states, mostly in the Northeast
and the West Coast.
The Changing Color of the Electorate
a long-range point of view, the change in the racial composition
of the electorate as a whole is perhaps even more important than
the recent shifts towards the Democrats. In 1976 whites constituted
90 percent of the vote; in 2000 they still accounted for 81 percent.
This year the white share of the vote fell to 74 percent, quite
a dramatic change in a short time.
as surprising, the main group increasing its share of the electorate
is not Latinos, but African Americans. Blacks constituted thirty
percent of all new voters in 2004, and an even greater mobilization
this year brought them to 13 percent of the overall vote, a thirty
percent increase over 2000.
sheer numbers of Latino and Asian voters have risen significantly
over the same period, but their percentage share of the overall
vote is virtually unchanged since 2000: nine percent for Latinos
and two percent for Asians. (3)
the percentage of the electorate that is under thirty years of age,
regardless of color, also remained stable, at 17-18 percent. However,
these voters increased their Democratic vote by 12 points compared
to 2004, voting for Obama by 66 to 32. Young voters were also the
main corps of Obama field organizers and their energy gave the campaign
much of its movement-like quality.
true maverick in the 2008 campaign was not McCain who pursued the
same old reactionary Republican Southern Strategy, but Obama whose
bold strategy of fighting for the South and the Southwest, indeed
all fifty states, ran counter to all previous electoral “common
success was both astonishing and history making. He won the southwestern
states of Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico, and the former Confederate
slave states of Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, as well as
former slave states Maryland and Delaware. The Latino vote was decisive
for Obama in Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Colorado.
all, nine states switched from red to blue from 2004 to 2008: Virginia,
North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, New
Hampshire and Iowa. Obama lost Missouri by the narrowest of margins.
historic nature of these victories is brought into sharp relief
by the accompanying maps.
States and Slave States, before the Civil War
Map of 2004 Election Results
first is the map of slave versus free states and territories just
prior to the Civil War. The other is the electoral map of the 2004
election. Depressingly, they are almost identical: the former slave
areas are almost universally Republican and the former free areas,
with a couple of exceptions, are Democratic.
150 years after the abolition of slavery, the political patterns
wrought by the “peculiar institution” still shape U.S. politics.
Barack Obama’s campaign may mark the beginning of the end of this
historic pattern, with tremendous implications for the future of
U.S. politics. The main window into this change is the Electoral
Electoral College: a Pillar of Racism
is not so surprising that slavery set the pattern of U.S. politics
if one knows that the Electoral College itself was a product of
Founding Fathers, led by slaveholders such as George Washington,
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, invented the Electoral
College out of thin air to serve their interests.
codified the notorious idea that slaves were non-humans, and thus
deserving of no constitutional or human rights. The one exception
to this rule was the stipulation that slaves were to be counted
as three-fifths of a person, solely for the purpose of determining
how many congressional representatives each state would be allotted.
The three-fifths rule vastly increased the slave power in the House
of Representatives and therefore the Congress.
Electoral College, in which each state receives a number of Electors
equal to their congressional delegation, was invented as the institutional
means to transfer that same pro-slavery congressional allocation
to determining the presidency. Slaveholders
held the presidency for 50 of the 72 years before Abraham Lincoln,
who was elected in 1860, became the first U.S. president to oppose
the expansion of slavery. The
South, used to wielding political power through the selective enumeration
of slaves, promptly seceded.
the end of slavery the Electoral College has remained a racist and
conservative instrument. It has given the Republicans a running
head start to win the presidency ever since reactionary Southerners
switched en masse from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party
in protest of the 1960s civil rights legislation.
then-Republican strategist Kevin Phillips put it in 1970, “The more
Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe
whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where
the votes are.”
on that switch, the Republicans adopted the notorious Southern Strategy
that has enabled them to dominate the presidency for the last forty
years. The Republicans learned to skillfully fashion a winning combination
of the solidly Republican white southern voters with conservative
and moderate whites in the Midwest and Southwest, through barely
coded racist appeals.
Southern Strategy has been the glue with which the Republican Party
has united powerful corporate capitalists to conservative white
workers, farmers, gun aficionados, small business owners and suburban
the Southern Black Vote
The racial bias embedded in the Electoral College
system is the structural basis of the Republican’s Southern
Strategy. The winner-take-all Electoral College system ensures,
even requires, that about half of all voters of color be marginalized
or totally ignored. (4)
About 53 percent of all blacks live in the southern states, and
in 2000 and 2004 they voted about 90 percent Democratic. However,
in those elections white Republicans out-voted them in every Southern
state and every border state except Maryland.
As a result, every single southern Electoral College vote was awarded
to Bush. While whites voted 54-42 for Bush nationally in 2000, southern
whites gave him over 70 percent of their votes in both 2000 and
2004. They thus completely erased the massive Southern black vote
for the Democrats in that region.
The Electoral College result was the same as if blacks, and other
Democrats, in the South had not voted at all.
Similarly negated were the votes of millions of Native American
and Latino voters who live in overwhelmingly white Republican states
like Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, Utah, the Dakotas, Montana and Texas.
Further, the peoples of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American
Samoa and Guam, territories ruled by the U.S., get no Electoral
College votes at all. The tyranny of the white, conservative majority
the reactionary and pro-Republican bias of the Electoral College,
the system gives as much as three times as much weight to the mainly
conservative and white Republicans in the rural states compared
to states with large, racially diverse and majority Democratic populations.
example, Wyoming has a little more than 240,000 voters and has three
Electoral College votes: one for every 80,000 or so voters. By comparison
large population states like California have about one Electoral
College vote for every 220,000 voters.
the Electoral College system violates the principle of one person,
one vote, drastically undermines the impact of the black vote and
gives the Republicans a major advantage in presidential contests.
Its abolition should be a key part of the progressive agenda.
the political dynamics of each of the nine states that turned from
red to blue in 2008 need to be examined closely in their own right,
it is likely that a minimum of three or four will move decisively
into the Democratic column. A number of others that swung Democratic
in 2008 have moved from being solidly red states to battleground
solid Republican South and Southwest may be a thing of the past.
In the wake of Obama’s hard-won victories, the Democrats have no
excuse for essentially conceding these regions, as they have done
will qualitatively shift the Electoral College math. Since 1968
the Electoral College has clearly favored the Republicans and the
Democrats had to pull off an upset to win. Indeed, Bill Clinton
won only because of the third party candidacy of Ross Perot. In
the future, it may be that the Electoral College math will favor
the Democrats, and that the Republicans can only win by staging
as important, for the first time in U.S. history the two political
parties clearly represent the two broad wings of U.S. politics.
At the national level, the southern reactionaries no longer hold
the Democratic Party hostage.
augurs well for the possibility that an Obama presidency may be
able to gather the political strength to undertake a major restructuring
of the economy in favor of working people and peoples of color in
general, and to reorganize our foreign policy in a positive direction.
there is still a major political element missing from the political
equation: a powerful independent peoples’ movement. In the 1930s
the union movement, and especially the newly formed, radical CIO,
was key to the New Deal. In the 1960s the civil rights movement
was the driving force of the War on Poverty.
lies the principal task of progressives in the coming period: to
forge powerful independent, mass movements and organizations that
can help shape the Obama coalition in a positive way. Our relative
success or failure at this task may determine the future of the
U.S. and the world every bit as much as President Obama himself.
Guest Commentator, Bob Wing is a writer and organizer in South Los
Angeles, and former editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times
newspaper. Click here
to contact Mr. Wing.
Unless otherwise noted all voting figures are drawn from the National
Exit Polls for 2000, 2004 and 2008, as reported by CNN.
I calculate the “swing” or “change” in the vote in the traditional
but rather confusing manner as the change in the vote differential.
For example, in 2004 blacks voted Democratic by 88 to 11, a 77 point
differential. In 2008, they voted Democratic by 95 to 4, a 91 point
differential. The vote differential thus changed from 77 points
to 91 points, so I report a 14-point “swing” or “change.”
No national exit poll numbers are available about Arab or Native
American voters for any year.
Only Nebraska and Maine allocate their electoral votes more or less
proportionate to the vote rather than on a statewide winner-take-all