On Sunday I went to the Prudential Center in Newark to hear President Obama make the case for Governor Jon Corzine’s reelection here in New Jersey. Already a strong supporter of Governor Corzine I wasn’t going to be convinced. And I wasn’t particularly excited about standing in a long line, on a chilly afternoon to listen to two men I’ve heard speak dozens of times. But I was determined to go. One year ago I’d been in Newark to hear candidate Obama make his closing arguments, and I wanted to check out what an Obama rally looks like one year later.
Some elements of the atmosphere were familiar: insanely long lines, intense police presence, surprisingly jovial mood despite the chill. One thing was noticeably and distressingly different: the crowd waiting to see President Obama in Newark on Sunday was much less diverse than the crowd that greeted him in the waning days of the 2008 election. By my estimation the supporters in Newark yesterday were not exclusively, but certainly predominately, African American.
The event mirrors recent trends in the polls. Presidential job approval polls by Gallup have tracked two consistent trends in President Obama’s ratings: overall decline and a widening racial gap between black and white Americans.
As a public opinion researcher, I am not surprised by this racial gap. Political science has convincingly and repeatedly found a wide and persistent gulf between the political attitudes of white and black Americans.
For example, one of the most consistent finding of public opinion research is how African American partisanship differs from that of whites. African American allegiance to the Republican Party of Lincoln was solid for the decades between Emancipation and The New Deal, but by the 1940s black Americans had become overwhelmingly Democratic in affiliation. At the same time, white voters increasingly moved to the Republican column, particularly in the South.
African Americans are unique both in the direction of their affiliation and in the homogeneity of the attachment. But despite the strength of this attachment, black Democratic partisanship is quite different from that of white Democrats. There is marked racial division of opinion within the party ranks and leadership. The Congressional Black Caucus often finds itself at odds with party leadership, and among voters, black and white Democrats differ on issues of economic redistribution, domestic public policy, and even foreign policy.
This means that President Obama is not the first contemporary president to experience a noticeable racial approval gap. African American animosity toward Presidents Reagan and Bush, who were well liked by most whites, was a salient feature of the 1980s. African American attitudes toward Clinton were quite different. In 2000, black respondents reported average warmth toward Clinton of 79 points, a presidential score, that for the first time, outstripped black American ratings for Reverend Jesse Jackson. The approval ratings among African Americans for George W. Bush made history when they plummeted to single digits in some polls during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.