Do Blacks and Whites see Obama through race-tinted glasses? A comparison of Obama's and Clinton's approval ratings.

Author:Abrajano, Marisa
Position:Polls and Elections - Report

A recent headline from the Gallup Poll hails that, "Obama Approval Sinks to New Lows Among Whites, Hispanics." (1) The latest Gallup Poll conducted in August 2011 indeed reveals that President Barack Obama's monthly approval rating is at an all-time low among all racial groups. The lowest approval rating amongst these groups is from Whites; less than a majority, 44%, approved of Obama's performance. In this same poll, Obama's support among Blacks also dropped by approximately eight percentage points to a new low of 84%. Despite this recent decline, Black support remains nearly double that of Whites.

This discrepancy has led many pollsters to conclude that a "racial gap" exists in President Obama's job approval ratings. In particular, political pundits have focused on the gap between Blacks and Whites, where the difference in support for President Obama has been as much as 51 percentage points in the Gallup Poll. Some political commentators and media outlets attribute this gap to the fact that Obama is the first ethnic/racial minority to occupy the White House. On the other hand, the existence of a White-Black gap could merely reflect the differences in the political preferences and partisanship of White Americans and ethnic/racial minorities. Today, a majority of White Americans identify as Republicans, while most ethnic/racial minorities--and Blacks especially--identify as Democrats. How can we determine which of these dynamics is responsible for the disparity we observe in approval ratings?

One way to do so is to consider the following counterfactual scenario--would we expect to see a similar White-Black gap in the approval ratings of former President Clinton, the last Democrat in office? In addition to being a Democrat, many considered Clinton to be the nation's "first Black president." (2) While there are a number of important differences between Presidents Clinton and Obama in addition to their race, Clinton is easily the best comparison case for Obama because of his high approval ratings among blacks. By comparing Presidents Obama and Clinton, we assess whether the Black-White gap has its roots in individual partisanship or ethnic solidarity. We investigate this question by analyzing CNN polling data spanning Obama's inauguration in January 2009 to June 2011. (3) In keeping with this time period, we also examine Time/CNN polling data that begins with Clinton's inauguration in January 1993 to June 1995. (4) We also analyze the differences between President Clinton's and President Obama's job performance ratings at the individual level with a multivariate analysis of presidential approval.

This article proceeds as follows. The following section briefly discusses the literature on racial voting and the partisan attachments of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Next, we discuss our research design and methods, followed with a discussion of our results. The final section concludes.

Variations in Political Preferences by Race and Ethnicity

Historically, Blacks have been strong and loyal supporters of the Democratic Party; their average support for the Democrats hovers somewhere near 90% in both presidential and midterm elections (Abrajano and Alvarez 2010; Frymer 1999). Up until the 1960s, both parties received at least 90% of their votes from White voters. Shortly thereafter, Democratic defection among largely Southern Whites began in response to the Civil Rights Movement, the increased political participation of African Americans, and growing Black support of the Democratic Party, which fundamentally reshaped the partisan political landscape (Carmines and Stimson 1989, Huckfeldt and Kohfeld 1989). As Blacks joined the Democratic Party in large numbers, and the Democratic and Republican Parties diverged on racial policies, White identification with the Democratic Party, particularly in the South, declined significantly.

Currently, a larger and larger share of Democratic support comes from racial and ethnic minorities, while the share of Republican support coming from Whites has held steady. According to the most recent American National Election Study (ANES) taken in 2008, over 40% of Democratic identifiers are racial and ethnic minorities. By contrast, only 8% of Republican identifiers report being Black, Latino, or Asian American. The current composition of our political parties suggests that the Democratic Party has become the party of minorities and the Republican Party has remained exceptionally White.

Although both parties have at times moved toward the center on matters of race, there have been--and continue to be--significant gaps on a number of critical racial policy questions. On immigration, welfare, affirmative action, and other issues of particular relevance to racial and ethnic minorities, the Democratic Party has tended to position itself to the left of the Republican Party (Edsall and Edsall 1991; Segura, Falcon, and Pachon 1997).

Racial Identity and Voting Behavior

The race and politics literature offers several explanations that link ethnic/racial identity with political behavior. In the case of the 2008 presidential election, ethnic/ racial minorities may feel compelled to support a fellow ethnic/racial minority for political office out of group pride or group solidarity (Bobo 2001; Bobo and Gilliam 1990). As the research on race-based voting indicates, minorities tend to vote along racial lines when there is a minority candidate on the ballot (Bullock 1984; Grofman 1991; Handley, Grofman, and Arden 1994; Lai 1999). Another reason why minorities might wish to elect a minority candidate could stem from the belief that descriptive representation leads to substantive representation (Swain 1994; Tate 1991).

Blacks are also more likely to support Black candidates based on a perceived shared identity and interests. Dawson's (1994) conceptualization of linked fate stems from Blacks' shared history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. These shared experiences have created a powerful collective or group identity that manifests itself in their political behavior. As such, what affects one individual can influence the overall well-being of the...

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