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Polls reveal a dramatic racial divide in presidential race

Minority voters gain in numbers, political clout

Mitt Romney greeted attendees at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference in Orlando, Fla., in June.

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

Mitt Romney greeted attendees at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference in Orlando, Fla., in June.

For a decade, Republican strategists have warned that unless the GOP does a better job winning support from black, Latino, and Asian-American voters, its long-term viability may be at risk.

On Tuesday Mitt Romney, who has not managed to make substantial inroads among minorities during his presidential campaign, will find out if that day has arrived. With the nation’s demographics changing rapidly, the election’s results will render a verdict on whether the GOP can continue to win national elections with negligible support from minority groups, who account for more than a quarter of the electorate.

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A loss by Romney, despite what is shaping up to be stronger support from whites than any Republican candidate has received in a generation, would underscore the growing political power of minority voters. It could force the GOP to adjust its positions, especially on immigration, where its hard-line stance has alienated Latinos.

By the same token, though, the high level of racial polarization reflected in preelection polls hints at dangers for Democrats. Predictions that Republicans will suffer from an increasingly diverse population rest on the assumption that many white voters will continue to vote Democratic. But if this year’s surveys showing three of every five whites supporting Romney prove accurate, and are a harbinger of long-term trends, falling support from whites could outpace Democratic gains among minorities.

“Both outcomes are possible,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. “The Democrats have a huge problem among white voters, and it seems to be increasing. And whites remain the majority of voters in the United States.”

Even if Romney ekes out a victory, it may be the last one the GOP can wring from the white coalition that has carried the party to the presidency in seven of the last 11 elections, analysts said. This election is the “last hurrah for whites,” said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank.

“”Either the Republican Party will go down, or they’ll understand things are changing,’’ he said.

In Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and other battleground states, minority voting-eligible populations have surged since 2008, according to Frey’s analysis, trends that are expected to accelerate. In the long term, minorities are projected to outnumber whites by 2042, although the composition of the electorate that shows up to vote tends to lag broader demographic changes and may remain predominantly white for years afterward.

The racial divide is shaping up to be historic. A Pew poll released Monday found that 57 percent of whites planned to vote for Romney, compared to only 37 percent for Obama. That number would translate into the lowest share for a Democrat in a two-person race since Walter F. Mondale got 35 percent of the vote in 1984. By comparison, in Obama’s 2008 victory, 43 percent of white voters supported him.

Michael Dimock, Pew’s associate director for research, said that white voters without college degrees, who tend to have lower incomes and may be more likely to be suffering from sluggish economic growth, accounted for most of Obama’s falloff in the poll.

“Obama’s running about as well among white college graduates as he did four years ago,” Dimock said. “The bigger difference seems to be among less educated whites. It’s almost two-to-one for Romney among the less educated whites.

“There’s a tendency to want to infer a lot of cultural weight to that, but I think given the circumstances it’s economic,” said Dimock, downplaying the possibility that the gap presaged any long-term shifts among whites. “College grads have a little more of a cushion in this economy than non-college grads. People who had a problem with Obama’s race, that was already there in ’08. The loss of support probably has a lot to do with the economy.”

But while the Republican ticket may attract greater white support this year than John McCain did in 2008, Democrats are hoping that boost will be concentrated in Southern states, where it won’t help. Romney could run up the score among white voters in those states, but since he is likely to win their electoral votes anyway, increasing his total number of white votes there won’t help him win the election.

Dimock said that because the economic recovery has been uneven geographically, and white voters are an extremely heterogenous category, it was plausible to think Obama’s losses among whites will not be evenly distributed.

Polls of swing states released Wednesday by the New York Times and CBS lent some credence to that theory. The polls found Romney with a huge lead over Obama among working-class white voters in Florida, but virtually tied with Obama among that demographic in Ohio.Ohio’s overall racial demographics are little changed from 2008. But in other swing states, the population is changing rapidly. Nevada recorded the steepest minority gains, going from 30 percent of the voting-eligible population in 2008 to 39 percent this election. California, North Carolina, New York, and Florida recorded large minority gains as well.

For now, members of racial and ethnic minority groups make up about a quarter of the national electorate, and polls show Obama far ahead. Obama maintains an overwhelming lead among blacks, according to polls, and a smaller margin among Asian-Americans. Among Hispanics, he led 69 percent to 21 percent, according to a Pew Hispanic Center poll earlier this month.

As recently as 2004, when George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, Latinos were considered a swing constituency. Karl Rove, Bush’s political strategist, who said in a speech this month in Arkansas that the GOP would be doomed without winning over more Latinos, pushed the party to back immigration reform that year.

But the effort stalled. In the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries, Republican candidates took hard-line positions on immigration. Romney opposed the Dream Act, which would allow children of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

Since winning the nomination, the Romney campaign has campaigned for Latino votes with elected Latino Republican officials like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico. But his numbers do not seem to have budged.

One hope for the GOP in the future, Dimock said, is that some of the overwhelming minority support for Obama might not be transferable to other Democrats in future presidential elections.

“The question is, does any Democratic candidate continue to have the kind of loyalty from nonwhite voters as Obama does?” Dimock said.

Alan Wirzbicki can be reached at awirzbicki@globe.com.
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