Role of cultural minorities in the USA presidential elections (I)

1. Introduction

We are living in a multicultural society, which is slowly becoming a defining feature of our culture. Racial diversity is so rooted in our daily lives, that it is increasingly assuming a key role in parts of our political system. We may have a clear example of this rising influence of the role of minority groups in the politics of the USA in the last presidential elections. The electorate in last year’s presidential election was the most racially and ethnically diverse in U.S. history, with nearly one-in-four votes cast by non-whites, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data by the Pew Research Center. The nation’s three biggest minority groups —blacks, Hispanics and Asians— each accounted for unprecedented shares of the presidential vote in 2008. Generally speaking, whites made up 76.3% of the record 131 million people who voted in 2008’s presidential election, while blacks made up 12.1%, Hispanics 7.4% and Asians 2.5%. This unprecedented diversity of the electorate was driven by increases both in the number and in the turnout rates of minority eligible voters.

Figure 1 Demographic Composition of voters, by race & ethnicity (1998-2008)

The levels of participation by black, Hispanic and Asian eligible voters all increased from 2004 to 2008, reducing the voter participation gap between themselves and white eligible voters. This was particularly true for black eligible voter. Their voter turnout rate increased 4.9 percentage points, from 60.3% in 2004 to 65.2% in 2008, nearly matching the voter turnout rate of white eligible voters (66.1%). For Hispanics, participation levels also increased, with the voter turnout rate rising 2.7 percentage points, from 47.2% in 2004 to 49.9% in 2008. Among Asians, voter participation rates increased from 44.6% in 2004 to 47.0% in 2008. Meanwhile, among white eligible voters, the voter turnout rate fell slightly, from 67.2% in 2004 to 66.1% in 2008. The increased diversity of the electorate was also driven by population growth, especially among Latinos. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of Latino eligible voters rose from 16.1 million in 2004 to 19.5 million in 2008, or 21.4%. In comparison, among the general population, the total number of eligible voters increased by just 4.6%. (Lopez and Taylor 2009, p. i – iv)

Figure 2 Change in voter turnout rates among eligible voters, 2008 and 2004 (Lopez and Taylor 2009, Table 1)

With this data at hand, I think that a detailed search of the role of cultural minorities in the United States must be interesting to show not only the changing character of the cultural roots of that country, but the future implications that this diversity might imply to the political outcome of future elections. I would begin this short dissertation with a contextualization of the historic and politic moments of the presidential elections in 2008. Then, I will briefly describe the reasons which brought to the White House to the first Afro-American President in the US History. Finally, I will deal with the increase on ballot casts of some cultural minorities which, as we will see, have mainly supported B. Obama. I will show some data related to the role of minorities in the presidential elections and draw some conclusion about the present and future implications.

2. Historic and political context.

2.1. The presidential electoral system.

Electing the President is a long, complicated, and costly affair, and sometimes it can be outstretched for more than a year. The first decisive step is taken from February to June of the presidential election year, when the states narrow the field of candidates to one from each major party in what are called the primaries . Party voters choose delegates to the party’s national convention, who are presumably delegated the authority to make the party’s official nomination of a candidate . Primaries are usually closed, so that only registered members of the political party are allowed to vote. However, some states do have some open primaries, where voters from either party can participate. Nevertheless, each state enacts their own laws for the presidential election, so that there is no unified system, creating a really complex set of electoral idiosyncrasies at the state level. As the media always keeps a running count of the delegates pledged to each candidate during the primary season, the result is usually clear before the actual convention. Therefore, the party convention in July is mere a political parade which presents the party unified under the elected candidate and the internal disagreements of the primary season are forgotten.

The official party candidates face each other in the federal campaign that runs from late July until the beginning of November. Candidates traditionally crossed the country to make known their stands on the political issues of interest on the different states, but this advertising need is increasingly relying on the media: TV spots, national televised interviews or debates in famous broadcasting networks, newspapers, radio and so on. On Election Day, there is no official federal institution that accounts for the electoral progress throughout the states, but the media is the responsible for broadcasting the results. The first data available on polling day is usually the popular vote , whose figures show an estimation compiled by polling organizations who ask people how they voted as they exit the polling stations. Despite of the importance of the actual popular vote , it does not actually determine who wins the election, because candidates are also chosen in an indirect fashion by means of a set of delegates. In accordance with the Constitution, the popular vote is to be counted by state, and the candidate with the highest electoral vote on the state is awarded with all the electoral college votes –each state receives a number of votes in the college equal to the sum of its members in the Senate (2) and the House of Representatives (proportional to population)–. The District of Columbia has only three votes, making a total of 538 electors in the college . Formality states that members of the Electoral College travel to their respective state capitals in mid-December and cast the ballots. However, the electoral result is clear long before then because most members of the college are pledged to vote together for the winning candidate in each state. This electoral system, which is known as the winner-take-all system, has its most dramatic effect in the electoral college vote, because candidate who carries a state (even with a minority of its popular vote) receives all the state’s votes in the college.

2.2. Historic context.

Even though none of the candidates was sitting for re-election, the historical context and the political decisions taken by the previous administrations were relevant in order to fully understand the electoral process. There may be many other events or policy decisions that might be also relevant to our study, but I will only focus my attention to two: The War on Irak and The Wall Street meltdown.

War in Iraq

After the attack to the World Trade Center in 9/11, the Bush administration started a war against terrorism, first by invading Afghanistan and afterwards by targeting Saddam Hussein as the evil of all villains. After political disagreements between the UN and the USA about the role that Iraq was playing in the Taliban international terrorism web, the US Congress passed a resolution in October 2002 that authorized military force to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq . Five months afterwards, the coalition of the willing , with the United States as its main representative, launched a war against Iraq in order to disarm the government and free its people from tyranny. 250,000 United States troops were supported by approximately 45,000 British, 2,000 Australian and 200 Polish combat forces. On 1 May, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, the President declared that the major combats have ended and that the US and her allies have prevailed to remove an ally of al Qaeda. However, the fighting still continued in 2008 and there were no scheduled departure of US troops at that moment either. Whereas the 1st Gulf War was measured in days and only 200 US military were killed, this second has been measured in months, with more than 1,000 military casualties and a $151 billion war effort. (Gill 2008)

Financial meltdown

An exceptional event happened during the campaign: The Wall Street meltdown crisis. The reasons for the Wall Street meltdown are too long and complex to explain in much detail here and were caused by years of speculation. In order to contextualize the historic moment, I think it would be necessary to briefly explain the basic causes of the final meltdown and its consequences. Basically, some financial institutions (banks, investment companies …) made insufficiently secured mortgages over many years, which eventually fueled an unsustainable increase on real estate prices and a real estate bubble. Energy prices increased, slowing economic growth and causing the real estate bubble to burst. This dealt a direct blow to the financial institutions that these bad loans, known as subprime, and the problem seemed limited to a few isolated financial institutions (e.g., Bear Stearns). However, the depth of the problem was broader than imagined and, in early September, a number of huge financial institutions were at the edge of bankruptcy, causing Wall Street markets to fall and credit markets, especially interbank loans, to freeze. The Federal government had to play an active role in the set of events, seizing control of the two most important government-sponsored mortgage institutions: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Eight days later, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and Merrill Lynch was bought by Bank of America. The next day, September 16th, the government had to make an $85 billion bailout loan to insurance giant AIG , because otherwise the consequences would have been devastating for the American economy. The economic crisis went global and the Bush administration, with Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson and Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernake as its leaders, asked Congress for a $700 billion financial institutions bailout bill in order to solve the immediate problems that were happening. After being turned back in the initial House vote, a revised version of the $700 billion Bipartisan Emergency Economic Stabilization Act was passed and signed by the President on October 3rd.

3. Obama’s victory.

In 2008, there was widespread unhappiness with the direction of the country during President George W. Bush’s second term. Between April and July of 2008 the Gallup polls showed only a 15% of respondents, on average, said that they were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time. The fundamentals were definitely unfavorable to the Republicans, because long before the primaries have even started, the public had grown impatient with the War in Iraq. During the primaries, several polls showed a substantial increase in the opposition to the war and also indicated that about twice as many Americans had come to oppose the War in Iraq as support it. The war was really a political liability for Republicans, and democrats took advantage of the unpopularity of the Bush administration.

Table 1 In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?

 

Figure 3 Degree of Satisfaction in the United States (2007-2009)

There are several other factors which may be said to have played a crucial role in Obama’s electoral victory and the discomfort that many US citizens felt at election time. Even though these factors are not central to this paper, I think that they must be taken into consideration because they are also related to the multicultural set of voters that elected Barack H. Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. The first factor which might have certain importance in order to increase Obama’s victory may be based on his political public image. I am not only talking about his performance as an outsider from Washington and his slogans on change and self-relieance, but about his choice of vice-president for his ticket and his ability to self-fund his campaign. The second factor which might be relevant is the period of financial breakdown that the US citizens had to cope with in late September and October, together with the legislative measures taken by the administration and eventually ratified by the Congress. Third, the probable changing nature of the electorate support that both candidates received was probably the most important factor of them all.

3.1. Obama’s political public image.

The democrat candidate was an unusual aspirant to the presidency in many ways. The most obvious one was his biracial and international background, which let him to be the first Afro-American official candidate to the US presidency throughout American history. Obama’s constant messages of change were also assimilated by the electorate which, somehow, created a self-idealistic image of the candidate in terms of foreigner to Washington’s political circle . The YES, WE CAN was a deeply Emersonian self-reliant message that went deeper into the Americans’ own self-image. This spectacular marketing plan was even reinforced by a completely new funding strategy which was based on minor contributions to his campaign and the use of social-networks, such as Facebook, as a political and advertising device.

Obama’s lack of experience on the national stage became a recurring theme used by his rivals during the quest for the presidency in 2008. Therefore, probably in order to achieve a certain balance in terms of experience, Joe Biden was unexpectedly chosen as Obama’s vice-president because of his longstanding expertise in the field of foreign affairs (Richards 2009, p.12). Though further research is needed, the 2008 campaign lends support to the observation that vice-presidential candidates have historically made little difference one way or the other. In this particular case, Biden was probably a low-profile and uncontroversial choice and the Republican vice-president S. Palin would actually help McCain as much as hurt him, generating no really effect one way or the other. (Campbell 2008, 18)

Obama’s capacity to fund his campaign overcame McCain’s, doubling the latter’s spending outcome . On June 19th, Obama was the first major-party presidential candidate to turn down public financing for a general election campaign in favor of private donations, which most of them would be small donations over the internet with about half of its intake coming in increments of less than $200. Obama’s ability to raise funds gave him a significant advantage in terms of his campaign’s capacity to retain paid staff, buy more media time, build a presence in more states, and directly contact more voters (Campbell 2008, p. 16). Therefore, the campaign successful funding was not only a reflection of popular support, but also an important device which would eventually help him to reach his objective.

3.2. Economic meltdown.

Despite of the fact that the financial crisis was certainly missing in the television presidential debates, their influence on the voters must not be minimized. Publically, both candidates strongly opposed the Wall Street brokers who were held responsible for the financial bubble, but then voted timidly for the unpopular Paulson plan. This uncertain positioning was even more obvious at the second presidential debate –Nashville (TN)–, when both candidates clearly evaded the audience’s questions about unemployment and home foreclosures. Few presidential campaigns in American history have fled so completely from engagement with their actual moment (Davis 2009, pp. 29-30), and the probable negotiated agreement to avoid discussing certain topics was probably agreed upon in order to evade public embarrassment of arguing each other’s concessions on the topic.

Nevertheless, the Wall Street meltdown dominated the remainder of the campaign through the media and it probably meant a significant shift in a portion of the vote from McCain to Obama. Although the Wall Street meltdown was truly an exceptional and unexpected event, it was a game changer (Campbell 2008, p. 13) that probably triggered the patience of a significant number of voters who apparently had been willing to ignore the displeasure with the Bush administration’s performance. This discontent in the general public opinion towards the Republican candidate can be confirmed by the Gallup opinion polls (See Figure 2) that clearly showed how September was a no-return point in McCain’s popularity. At the first half of September, McCain had a 5% difference from his opponent. However, he would quickly lose this advantage at the opinion polls and, after the Wall Street meltdown in mid September ; he would increasingly loose popular support throughout October .

Table 2: Suppose the presidential election were held today. Who would you vote for: Barack Obama or John McCain? (Registered voters)

Figure 4 Opinion polls on 2008 presidential elections.

3.3. Changing nature of the electorate support.

It has been constantly suggested that one of the most important factors that brought Barack Obama to the White house was his capacity to gain an extraordinary level of support among some specific set of voters. On the one hand, the democrat’s candidate had an unprecedented level of support among young people and new voters. He won the votes of those under 30 by a 66% to 32%, much higher than in any previous election. Even though Obama’s charm was not so evident in the next age frames, McCain did only have a clear victory on voters over 65.

Figure 5 Exit Polls: Age factor (source: MSNBC 2008)

Obama also had huge majority of those who voted for the first time, who supported him by 69% to 30%. This obvious majority must be really taken into consideration because the democrat presidential candidate in 2004, John Kerry, had a slight advantage in this group: 53% to 46%. The importance on this sector of the electorate is the medium and long term implications that might be applied to these data. New and young voters seemed to be sympathetic to the democrat candidate, which will be really helpful not only for the re-election, but for the rejuvenation of the overall party electors and a longer probability on successive victories of the future democrat candidates. Obviously, this might be a simplification of this particular issue, but is importance should not be minimized either.

Figure 6 Exit Polls: 1st voters (MSNBC 2008)

Another change in the electoral support, which I will focus my attention on in much more detail, are the minority voters –mainly non-white– who changed a trend in the electoral framework. B. Obama succeeded in mobilizing Afro-American voters to his cause to an unprecedented extent. The race factor in his case is more than obvious and although Afro-Americans were already a strongly Democratic sector, he swept McCain with a 95% of the black vote, compared to McCain’s. Despite of the fact that Hispanic voters mainly supported Hilary Clinton at the primaries, B. Obama managed to absorb that sector, which was sympathetic to the democrat party, on his side. Besides, he built up a big advantage among all Hispanic voters, whom G. W. Bush partly succeeded in winning in 2004. The Democrats led 67% to 31% among these voters, their best-ever result. Other minorities, such as Asian-Americans and other non-white citizens, similarly voted for the democrat candidate. Thus, a 62% of Asian-Americans voted for Obama, and a 66% of other non-white minorities also voted democrat. John McCain led slightly among white voters, by 55% to 43%, but Obama cut the Republican lead among this group compared with the 2004 election. Therefore, there is a clear trend that may lead the Democrat party to be that mainly supported by racial minorities, which each of them might be a relative small amount of votes, but all together sheltered a 25% of the total ballots of the 2008 presidential election.

Figure 7 Exit Polls: Race factor (source: MSNBC 2008)

The degree of education also seemed to show a certain pattern in several ways. B. Obama was generally most voted either by those who did not complete high-school (63%) or by postgraduate students (58%), with no significant difference in other educational sectors. Interestingly enough, if the educational and ethnic factors are mixed together, we can see that ethnicity is much more decisive in terms of voting tendencies. Non-whites, either college (75%) or non-college (83%) graduates voted for Obama. However, white non-college graduates chiefly voted for McCain (58%). This final fact might look contradictory, because 58% of white non-college graduates voted for McCain, whereas 63% of non-college citizens voted for Obama. This contradiction may be explain by the possible fact that most youngsters that have not finished high-school are non-white, an ethnic group that has mainly voted democrat, and consequently increasing Obama’s vote among the lower levels of education. This hypothesis, if confirmed, may suggest that, generally speaking, white population is more likely to finished secondary education, which implies a direct problem in the educational system in terms of integration and attendance to diversity.

Figure 8 Exit Polls: Education by race (source: MSNBC 2008)

Figure 9 Exit Polls: Educational factor (source: MSNBC 2008)

Last, but not least, Barack Obama made a strong showing among women, exceeding the normal Democratic advantage, while fighting a virtually even battle among men, who went heavily Republican in 2004. Mr. Obama won 56% of the female vote, compared with 51% of women who voted for John Kerry last time. And he was essentially tied among men, erasing the 55% to 45% advantage that President Bush enjoyed in 2004.

Figure 10 Exit Polls: Gender factor (source: MSNBC 2008)

4. Methodology

4.1. Sources of data.

This short research papers draws from different sources:

  • The data shown on 3.3. Changing nature of the electorate support is based on exit polls on MSNBC WEBPAGE (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26843704/) which seems to be founded on the The National Election Pool (NEP) consortium (webpage: http://www.exit-poll.net/index.html).
  • PEW HISPANIC CENTER reports at http://pewhispanic.org/ (all accessed on mid May, 2010)
  • The demographic data shown on 4. A demographic analysis of America’s 2008 presidential election: A minority’s perspective is based on the memorandum written by Herman J. and Minnite L. The Demographics of Voters in America’s 2008 General Election: A Preliminary Assessment, which can be found online at this webpage.
  • Hispanics and the 2008 Election: A Swing Vote?, also available in the internet.
  • Statistical Portrait of Hispanics in the United States, 2008 was mainly used to draw the population pyramid at the end of this paper.
  • Some data also comes directly from federal Bureaus: The Federal Election Comission and the US Census Bureau.
  • Some articles from the Berkeley Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics, THE FORUM, Volume 6, Issue 4. It is available online at http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol6/iss4/  (subscription required)
  • In general, sources are accounted for either in footnote or mentioned between brackets.

4.2. Questions on the investigation

There are several questions which are arisen and this paper tries to draw some light open them. First, is there really an electoral shift towards non-white population? Thus, which is and might be the role of minorities in present and future presidential elections? Has a political party converged somehow with the different cultural minorities in the USA? If so, can be assume that ethnicity is still a political issue, though hidden, in nowadays America?

Articulos similares:

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Role of cultural minorities in the USA presidential elections (I) por Iván Matellanes (Licenciado en Filologia Inglesa), a excepción del contenido de terceros y de que se indique lo contrario, se encuentra bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Spain Licencia.

About Iván Matellanes

Administrador, editor y creador de la e-Revista de Humanidades Sárasuatī, soy Licenciado en Filología Inglesa (UAB) y estudiante de último año de Humanidades (UOC). Además, tengo un Máster en "Teaching English as a foreign language" (UPF) y actualmente estoy cursando otro Máster oficial en "Estudios Norteamericanos" (UAH). Soy profesor de Inglés de ESO en la provincia de Castellón. Me gusta mucho la historia Americana y el pensamiento político estadounidense, ámbitos en los que me estoy especializando y alrededor de los cuales me gustaría disertar en un futuro.

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