The declining relevance of white male voters

If he wins, Obama's electoral coalition will also break a glass ceiling.

By Thomas Schaller
Published October 17, 2008 7:01PM (EDT)

Last year, I earned a high honor: Thanks to this Salon piece about the declining relevance of the white, male vote, Rush Limbaugh called me "arrogant" and "elitist." I would mention this on my C.V. if there were a category for it.

The National Journal's Ron Brownstein, who is a heckuva lot smarter than Limbaugh, has a new piece out about swing voters, which the Atlantic's astute Marc Ambinder touts in order to open a discussion about the significance of the white male voter.

What's really revealing about the white male vote is that Democratic presidential candidates seem to be doing neither any better nor any worse among these voters, and yet, in three of the past four elections, they won the national popular vote anyway.


The short, obvious answer is that, with each passing cycle, white men constitute a declining share of the electorate. They were almost half (47 percent) of all voters in 1952, but by 2004 were down to just more than a third (34 percent). Presuming a surge in black votes this year, along with the continued growth of the Asian and, especially, Hispanic vote shares, the 2008 election should take white males below a third of the electorate for the first time. Relatedly, this cycle could be the first in which one in four votes is cast by nonwhites.

There are many angles to discuss with respect to the significance of Barack Obama's candidacy: his amazing field campaign; his record-breaking fundraising; his compelling biography and identity; his ability to take down the Clinton machine.

But, should he win, here is the most significant and, frankly, apposite feature of such a victory: The first nonwhite president will have been elected by a coalition unlike any that has preceded it. It will be remembered as the first election of the rest of American presidential history.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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