Mark A. Smith is professor of Political Science and an adjunct professor of Comparative Religion and Communication at the University of Washington. His research focuses on economic and religious groups, ideas, and influences in American politics. In his new book, Secular Faith: How Culture Has Trumped Religion in American Politics, Dr. Smith argues that religion is not nearly the unchanging conservative influence in American politics that we have come to think it is and is best understood as responding to changing political and cultural values rather than shaping them.
After a sound defeat in the race for the White House, Republicans are still searching for answers about why their “most electable” presidential candidate lost and what if anything they should do differently going forward. The message from the candidate himself is consistent with some of the less popular campaign themes. In a call to his finance committee, Mitt Romney argued that Barack Obama won because of the “gifts” he bestowed on young people and minorities. In remarks that dovetail Romney’s, VP nominee Paul Ryan indicated that urban, minority turnout was to blame for their loss. These comments reflect a broader theme: that Obama did not understand the problems of white Americans, and primarily focused his policies on the needs or demands of racial minorities. The challenge, of course, is to determine just how many Americans, if any, agree.
It is instructive to go to public opinion data to gauge the depth of distrust people may feel toward the President. Public Religion Research Institute’s post-election American Values Survey included a “list experiment,” a technique used to give us an estimate of the proportion of the population that believes something they would probably not admit in public (I provided more details about this in my previous post). The statement is a measure of the extent to which Americans believe that “[Barack Obama] doesn’t understand the problems of white Americans.” Overall, we can estimate that roughly one-fifth of the population believes that statement (see the attached figure, where a * next to the category label indicates a statistically significant difference), but of course there are segments that believe it in much higher proportions.
In my analysis of these experimental data, I concentrate solely on whites. It is not surprising that Republicans are most likely to believe Obama is out of touch with white Americans. As I argued in my previous post, in attempt to appeal to white working class voters, the Romney campaign used a set of messages that tried to draw out this resentment. The belief is much less common among white independents and Democrats, but is still non-trivial – over 20 percent of white Democrats are estimated to feel Obama doesn’t understand their problems. Given the politics of right-leaning groups, it is also not surprising to see the degree of overlap between racial resentment against Obama and the belief that religion does not have prominent enough a role in society. Majorities to super-majorities of self-described members of the religious right, those who feel like religious liberty is threatened, and those who believe that public officials should pay more attention to religious leaders have a sense of racial resentment toward Obama.
Perhaps most telling in terms of the election results, I was able to compare white Americans’ reactions in battleground and non-battleground states. In non-battleground states, the balance of which went for Romney, 40 percent of white Americans are estimated to harbor this racial resentment, whereas the estimate among battleground state whites is not significant—that is, there is no evidence that whites in such battleground states as Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Florida felt that Obama did not understand their problems. The Ohio result could be explained, in part, by the popularity of the auto bailout, but that does not explain the reactions of voters in other states. The most likely explanation is the Obama campaign itself, which tried to provide a portrait of an empathetic president who was concerned with Americans’ everyday problems.
The empathy gap remained a significant advantage for the President throughout the campaign. The 2012 American Values Survey post-election survey found 53% of voters said the statement “cares about people like me” better describes Obama than Romney, while 41% said the statement better describes Romney. Even among white voters Romney held only a modest 8-point edge (50% to 42%). This raises two intriguing possibilities: the Obama campaign’s focus on empathy mitigated racial resentment or at least diminished its impact, or that empathy could be a relative quality, and a more empathetic GOP candidate could have resulted in a more racialized vote.