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Polls point to a racially polarized electorate

When election night is over, a strong majority of either whites or blacks and Latinos who cast ballots will be disappointed, according to numerous polls.

This year’s presidential election is shaping up to have possibly the nation’s most racially polarized electorate ever. More than three-quarters of blacks and Latinos support President Obama’s reelection. And a growing majority of whites are expected to vote for Mitt Romney.

A Washington Post-ABC national poll found that 60% of whites could vote for Romney with only about 37% supporting Obama. Meanwhile, several polls show Obama garnering about 75% of the Latino vote and more than 95% of the black vote.

Many experts say that if black and especially Latino voters turn out in large numbers, Obama probably will win. But Romney likely will win if he captures the white vote by the large margin and either the Latino or black turnout is low. The Romney campaign’s internal goal is to get at least 61% of the white vote. Obama needs to get about 80% of the minority vote, which seems plausible. But he also needs a significant turnout of blacks and Latinos, which isn’t as certain.

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Latino turnout in particular historically lags behind black and white turnout, though Latinos are the fastest-growing part of the American electorate. The widening margins of support for each political party among these groups could have repercussions beyond 2012, prompting both Republicans and Democrats to recalibrate their messages to at least stop the bleeding.

Four years ago, Obama lost the white vote to John McCain by 12 percentage points. About 90% of the voters who cast ballots for the Arizona senator were white. But Obama is poised to lose the white vote by more than 20 points this year. It’s a reversal for a candidate who actually did better among white voters in 2008 than John F. Kerry did four years before. Now Obama’s support is even dimmer than the 41% Kerry got in 2004, and it is especially grim among white males and whites without college degrees.

Mike Madrid, a Republican campaign consultant in Sacramento, said this election would essentially come down to the margin of support each party gets from these racial and ethnic blocs, and their respective turnout on Tuesday.

“This is the most racially polarized voting in a contest for the president of the United States,” he said.

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Although the Latino vote has been more elastic than the black vote — with more than 40% voting to reelect President George W. Bush in 2004 — both groups have long voted strongly Democratic. But Madrid said polls suggest the white vote has consolidated to an unusual degree.

“Presidential elections have always been about how the white vote breaks,” he said. “This is fundamentally different.… The outcome of the presidential contest is no longer just about how the white vote breaks, but by how many Hispanics and blacks turn out against the white vote, which is troubling.”

A recent Associated Press poll found that more Americans — now a slight majority of 51% — express prejudice toward blacks than in 2008. But Madrid says he thinks the economy’s continued struggle is the main reason that more white voters in Rust Belt and others states in particular are planning to vote against Obama, coalescing with the overwhelmingly white Republican base in Southern states.

“There’s a shift happening in these quote-unquote moderate battleground states,” Madrid said.

David Bositis, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., said demographic shifts favor the Democrats in the near future, particularly the rapid growth of a largely younger Latino electorate and a shrinking older and white electorate.

“The Republican Party can’t continue to be the party of the white southern conservatives or they’ll die off or become a regional party,” he said. “They are going to have to change.”

Bositis said that while many Latinos harbor conservative beliefs and often feel strongly about securing the border, the tenor of some of the rhetoric against illegal immigrants or against the poor has turned off many Latinos — who remain a largely working-class group. In a speech to donors near Boca Raton, Fla., Romney said that if Latinos ever began to support Democrats at the same level as blacks do, “why, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”

While such a strong level of support for Democrats among Latinos is unlikely, Bositis says the simple fact that this group is growing quickly means Republican presidential candidates can’t keep losing this vote by such huge margins. In the short term though, Obama’s anemic support among white voters could doom his changes of being reelected. The last time a Democrat polled as badly among whites was in 1988, when George H.W. Bush got 59% of the white vote compared with only 40% for Michael S. Dukakis.

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Bositis said racial animus undoubtedly played a role in why some white voters would cast ballots against Obama, but so did dissatisfaction with the state of the economy. He also pointed out that Obama is the first Democratic president since John F. Kennedy who wasn’t from the South, probably costing him some support in Southern states.

But while Obama has slipped among white voters, the Romney campaign has been unable to make significant advances with the Latino and black vote.

Beyond Tuesday’s election, the steady increase in Latino voters will force the Republican Party to do a much stronger outreach to at least close the gap of the Democrats’ advantage. The Asian vote is also more Democratic than in the past, though Bositis points out that the largest concentrations of Asians are in states like California and New York, which are not battlegrounds.

Madrid, the Republican consultant, said there are opportunities for the Republican Party to nab a larger percentage of the Latino vote, something GOP leaders like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Karl Rove and most recently conservative anti-tax activist Grover Norquist have argued. And it will be important that the party pursue that because the Latino population is growing in swing states that could decide who wins the presidency for elections to come.

“There’s no more time left demographically to be tinkering at the margins, doing window dressing like they have for 20 years,” Madrid said. “That’s not going to work anymore.”

hector.becerra@latimes.com

Twitter: LaTimesHekutor


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