On the networks last night and in the papers this morning there was a lot of — deserved — back patting about America having grown up to elect an African American. Thomas Friedman is pretty emblematic here:
How did Obama pull it off? To be sure, it probably took a once-in-a-century economic crisis to get enough white people to vote for a black man. And to be sure, Obama’s better organization, calm manner, mellifluous speaking style and unthreatening message of “change” all served him well.
This is half-right in that the economic crises proved politically important for Obama’s victory, but insofar as “enough white people” propelled Obama to victory, Friednman’s analysis is dead wrong. This graph shows whites and non-white as a share of the total electorate as compared to John Kerry in 2004:
As Matt Yglesias points out, “31.57 percent of voters were white people who voted for John Kerry in 2004. In 2008, the tally was very similar — 31.82 percent of voters were white people who voted for Barack Obama.” In other words, Obama won not because enough whites were able to put aside their prejudices, but because Obama dramatically increased the size of the minority share in the electorate.
There’s no doubt that Obama’s presidency represents an incredible step forward for race relations in America, so I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but it’s worth putting things in perspective.