Barack Obama’s Real Majority

by kris bishop on August 2, 2009

by John Kenneth White, author of Barack Obama’s America

Obama “Nearly four decades ago, social scientists Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg defined the Real Majority of the American electorate as being “un-young, un-poor, and un-black.” Put another way, most Americans were white, married, middle-aged with modest incomes, and resided in the suburbs. Thinking of politics in these demographic terms led many analysts to view the issues of the day through the prism of how they would resonate to this Real Majority. As cultural issues became dominant (i.e., abortion, the death penalty, crime, drug use, and the like), Scammon and Wattenberg’s Real Majority became alienated from the Democratic party, and began to vote for Republican presidents. As a result, both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan carried into office the cultural grievances of this Republican-minded majority, and earnestly sought to maintain its support.

Deep into the summer of 2009, Barack Obama is in the doldrums.

According to the Gallup poll, his approval rating is down to 54%, a fourteen-point drop from the sky-high 68% score at the beginning of his term. Public skepticism is growing–particularly when it comes to health care reform, the merits of the stimulus package, and the deficit. Obama’s troubles were further compounded when he stepped into the Henry Louis Gates controversy, declaring that the Cambridge, MA police department acted “stupidly” in arresting the Harvard professor. Viewed through the prism of Scammon and Wattenberg’s Real Majority, Obama’s difficulties seem particularly stark–especially as the issue of race clouds perceptions of the President on the aforementioned issues of the economy and healthcare, thus making him even more removed from the Real Majority that twice put both Nixon and Reagan into the White House. The latest Gallup poll, for example, finds only 47% of whites approve of Obama’s handling of the presidency. A Pew Research Center poll found a similar drop with 53% of whites backing Obama pre-Gates, and falling to 46% as the Gates controversy gained widespread media attention.

But is Barack Obama in trouble? Not necessarily, since Scammon and Wattenberg’s notion of what constitutes a Real Majority is increasingly outdated. Whites, for example, were nearly nine-of-ten voters in the Nixon and Reagan landslides of 1972 and 1984, but were only 74% of the electorate in 2008. In the coming years, those percentages will decline even further, since by mid-century whites will be a minority of the U.S. population.

As whites decline, other racial categories assume greater importance. Blacks comprised 13 percent of the electorate in 2008, while Hispanics constituted 9%. The passage of time only makes both groups stronger, especially Hispanics who will constitute 29% of the total U.S. population by 2030. That fact helped Obama to an easy victory over John McCain last year–as blacks awarded 95 percent of their votes to the first African-American President, and Hispanics were not far behind with 67 percent. Both groups remain in Obama’s corner. According to the most recent Gallup poll, 95% of blacks and 72 percent of Hispanics approve of Obama’s performance. One reason Hispanics still like the President is his nomination of Sonya Sotomayor to be the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, a nomination that garnered just one lone Republican vote
(South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham) from the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Young people also bear watching as they are harbingers of the future. In 1932 and 1936, first-time voters rejected the Republican party and gave Franklin D. Roosevelt such overwhelming support that it powered the New Deal coalition until it began running out of steam in the 1970s. Likewise, young voters backed Ronald Reagan and his prescription for less government in 1984, giving his coalition an extra boost and helping the two George Bushes win the White House. Something similar happened in 2008 when eighteen-to-twenty-nine year-olds gave Obama 66 percent of their votes. Young voters are still in Obama’s corner, as two-thirds approve of his job performance according to the latest Gallup Poll. Because the Republican party and its leaders have yet to pose an acceptable alternative, there is every indication that this Obama Generation will continue to support both him and the Democratic party for some time to come.

Today’s Real Majority–one that is increasingly multi-hued in racial tones and young–constitutes an important part of the sturdy coalition Obama built in 2008. Even as he is buffeted by the political realities of the moment–including rising opposition to health care reform, the economy, and concerns about the deficit–Barack Obama remains a dominant force–thanks to a new Real Majority that views him through a different cultural prism from the past and even now continues to give him strong support.”


Obama Barack Obama’s America

How New Conceptions of Race, Family, and Religion Ended the Reagan Era

John Kenneth White



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