Why Do White People Think Mitt Romney Should Be President?
Parsing the narrow, tribal appeal of the Republican nominee.
Photograph by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.
I'm voting for Barack Obama on Election Day. This fact will appear on Slate's list of which candidates its writers are voting for, a list which will almost certainly look like the 2008 list, which is to say an almost unbroken string of "Obama." People will look at this list—Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama—and they will say, Look at the Slate writers, inside their bubble.
And they will be wrong. There is a real, airtight bubble in this election, but it's not Obama's. As a middle-aged white man, in fact, I'm breaching it. White people—white men in particular—are for Mitt Romney. White men are supporting Mitt Romney to the exclusion of logic or common sense, in defiance of normal Americans. Without this narrow, tribal appeal, Romney's candidacy would simply not be viable. Most kinds of Americans see no reason to vote for him.
This fact is obfuscated because white people control the political media. So we get the Washington Post reporting that the election is "more polarized along racial lines than any other contest since 1988":
Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News national tracking poll. That presents a significant hurdle for the president—and suggests that he will need to achieve even larger margins of victory among women and minorities, two important parts of the Democratic base, to win reelection.
That's not polarized. Polarization would mean that various races were mutually pulling apart, toward their favored candidates. "Minorities" is not a race (nor, you may have noticed, is "women"). Minorities and women are the people standing still, while white men run away from them.
What is it with these white men? What are they seeing that ordinary people don't see? What accounts for this ... secession of theirs, from the rest of America? John Sununu, Romney's campaign co-chair, responded to Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama by saying, "I think that when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States—I applaud Colin for standing with him."
Sununu was trying to be snide. But there he is, standing with Mitt Romney. Just like Donald Trump and Clint Eastwood and Buzz Bissinger and Meat Loaf—one aging white man after another. It's a study in identity politics.
White people don't like to believe that they practice identity politics. The defining part of being white in America is the assumption that, as a white person, you are a regular, individual human being. Other demographic groups set themselves apart, to pursue their distinctive identities and interests and agendas. Whiteness, to white people, is the American default.
Yet Mitt Romney's election strategy depends on the notion that the white vote is separate from the rest of the vote, and can be captured as such. Back in August, National Journal ran a report on campaign math headlined "Obama Needs 80% of Minority Vote to Win 2012 Presidential Election":
Romney’s camp is focused intently on capturing at least 61 percent of white voters. That would provide him a slim national majority—so long as whites constitute at least 74 percent of the vote, as they did last time, and Obama doesn’t improve on his 80 percent showing with minorities.
Again, why are "minorities" treated as a bloc here? The story mentions no particular plan by the Obama campaign to capture the nonwhite vote. Instead, it discusses how the Romney forces hope to get a bigger share of white voters than John McCain did—by "stressing the increased federal debt" and attacking "Obama's record on spending and welfare."
Welfare, yes. Let's come back to "welfare." But first, how's the strategy been doing? A recent ABC/Washington Post poll found Romney leading Obama 65-32 among white men and 53-44 among white women, giving him a 59 percent share of the white vote overall—"a new high," and closing in on that 60 percent target.
This has been the foundation of Republican presidential politics for more than four decades, since Richard Nixon courted and won the votes of Southerners who'd turned against the Democratic Party because of integration and civil rights. The Party of Lincoln became the party of Lincoln's assassins, leveraging white anger into a regional advantage and eventually a regional monopoly. It's all very basic and old news, but it's still considered rude to say so, even as Republican strategists talk about winning the white voters and only the white voters.
And so we have two elections going on. In one, President Obama is running for re-election after a difficult but largely competent first term, in which the multiple economic and foreign-policy disasters of four years ago have at least settled down into being ongoing economic and foreign-policy problems. A national health care reform bill got passed, and two reasonable justices were appointed to the Supreme Court. Presidents have done worse in their first terms. In my lifetime—which began under the first term of an outright thug and war criminal—I'm not sure any presidents have done better. (The senile demagogue? The craven panderer? The ex-CIA director?)
In the other election, the election scripted for white voters—honestly, I'm not entirely sure what the story is. Republican campaigns have been using dog-whistle signals for so long that they seem to have forgotten how to make sounds in normal human hearing range. Mitt Romney appears to be running on the message that first of all, Obama hasn't accomplished anything, and second of all, he's going to repeal all the bad things that Obama has accomplished. And then Romney himself, as a practical businessman, is going to ... something something, small business, something, restore America, growth and jobs, tax cuts, something. It's a negative campaign in the pictorial sense: a blank space where the objects would go. A white space, if you will.
Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.