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How Historic a Victory?’

To the Editors:

As Michael Tomasky’s article [NYR, December 18, 2008] observes, Barack Obama lost the working-class white vote, either narrowly, by an income definition, or substantially, by an education definition…. What is also striking is the degree to which ethnic and religious affiliation drove the voting pattern. Obama won because he obtained overwhelming support from all the major ethnic and religious minority groups, which together comprised about 40 percent of the electorate.

He won 95 percent of African-American voters (who were 13 percent of the total); 67 percent of Hispanic voters (9 percent of the total); 62 percent of Asian-American voters (2 percent of the total); and 66 percent of “other” voters (3 percent of the total). Together, members of these ethnic groups represented 27 percent of the electorate. Considering religion among whites only, to avoid double-counting, Obama won 71 percent of the vote of those with no religious affiliation (who were 8 percent of the total vote); 83 percent of Jewish voters (2 percent of the total); and 67 percent of “other religion” voters (3 percent of the total).

Among white Catholics and Protestants it was a different story. White Catholics, forming 19 percent of the electorate, divided fairly evenly (47 percent for Obama), consistent with their reputation as swing voters. White Protestants, 42 percent of all voters, tilted strongly toward John McCain, with only 34 percent favoring Obama. White Protestant voters showed a further religious divide, with those identifying as born-again evangelicals favoring McCain overwhelmingly by 73 percent to 26 percent, and those not so identifying supporting McCain by a smaller although substantial margin, 55 percent to 44 percent.

The major issues of the day that political leaders debate and act upon have little or nothing to do directly with one’s theological views, ancestral place of origin, or regional residence…. It seems though that political affiliation and voting is at present shaped heavily by feelings of cultural identification and antagonism. These feelings can be shaped by history or by just a few issues, such as abortion or immigration, if they are important enough to members of a group.

The situation today resembles that prevailing, according to some scholars, in the late nineteenth century, when national political discourse revolved around tariff policy, while actual voting patterns were shaped substantially by religious affiliation and related local struggles over Sunday closing laws and liquor restrictions. See Paul Kleppner, The Cross of Culture (1970).

Joseph Woodward
Rockville, Maryland

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