40/90

One of the underlying topics of political discussion this year has been the irreducible minimum of white voters Barack Obama needed to be re-elected. TNR’s invaluable Nate Cohn has the latest update on the subject, noting that Obama may wind up with the lowest percentage of the white vote since Fritz Mondale won 35% en route to losing 49 states.

With most of the calculations putting Obama at or somewhat below 40% among white voters, I’ve been slowly realizing that I seem to be less alarmed at the prospect that a lot of my progressive brethren. And I finally realized why: I’m from Georgia, where the ancient calculus for Democrats to win statewide elections was often abbreviated as the 40/90 rule: win forty percent of the white vote and 90 percent of the black vote, and you were over the top, sometimes by a decent margin.

Now Georgia’s not representative of the country, and moreover, there’s little chance Barack Obama will get close to 40% of the white vote there or anywhere else in the Deep South. Most importantly, the nonwhite vote nationally (or for that matter, in Georgia) is no longer just a bit larger than the black vote, and is in fact a plurality brown vote in most elections. I also understand that anything around 40% of the white vote won’t cut it in very honkified states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

But still–and maybe this represents the tendency of some Democrats to identify party success with the New Deal Coalition and particularly the white working-class vote, which has been solidly Republican in most national elections for decades now–the idea of losing the white vote by margins like 3-2 tends to bug some folk. But it’s time to remind ourselves that a vote is a vote, and that there is zero danger that the Democratic Party is going to stop being aware of the views and interests of white people, who do tend to, you know, own most of the country.

The annoying thing about the old southern 40/90 coalition was its one-way nature: African-Americans were expected to loyally support white Democratic candidates, some of them pretty conservative. But they were often told a more representative slate of Democratic candidates would scare away white voters, and thus wasn’t acceptable. To this day, Doug Wilder is the only African-American candidate who has won a gubernatorial or Senate race in the Old Confederacy. And that’s one of the reasons a lot of southerners, black and white, supported Barack Obama from the get-go in 2008, to break that ceiling at its very peak. It’s hard to say how much Obama’s relatively low support levels among white voters is attributable to his race. But we are well on the way to caring a lot less than we used to, and viewing non-white voters as central, not ancillary, to political coalitions. So if Obama is re-elected with a historically low share of the white vote, it may prove as a useful Copernican reminder that we’re not the center of the political universe any more.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.