Two statistics from the exit polls struck me as surprising. 55% of white women voted for Romney (see here) and 52% of college-educated white women voted for Romney. See (here). My first reaction was that race had a lot to do with this, but the story is not that simple.
After all, Obama carried 52% of college-educated white women in 2008, and that percentage was along with that of Gore the highest percentage gained by a Democrat in five years of Presidential elections. See here.
With respect to white women generally, they have been more receptive to Democrats than white men, but as the National Journal explains “also more unsettled in their preferences. Only Clinton in 1996 carried a plurality of white women, although he ran about even with them in 1992, as did Gore in 2000. (Obama captured 46 percent of white women; only Clinton in 1996 and Gore in 2000 won more over this period.) The Republican share among white women has oscillated from Reagan’s 62 percent in 1984 to a low of 41 percent in the Perot-influenced 1992 race.” See here. So Obama’s performance is not out of line with those of white Presidential candidates although one could argue that his reception would have been even better given the circumstances of his election, but for his race.
The argument that Obama has been hurt by race also does not easily fit the data with respect to white men. As the National Journal in August of this year reported, “In the past eight elections, the Democratic nominee has averaged just 36.1 percent of the vote among white men; every Democratic nominee over that period has lost white men by double digits except for Clinton in 1992 (when the Perot effect was strongest). The modest 41 percent that Obama won among white men [in 2008] was actually the Democrats’ highest share since 1980.” See here. Again if Obama was hurt by race in 2008[because he might have done even better, but for his race], it is not obvious from the data. To be sure Obama was trounced in the white vote in this election, but it is hard to pin this on his race unless racism increased between 2008 and 2012.
Of course, part of the appeal of the Republican Party has been about race for many years from Willie Horton and welfare queens to the claim that Colin Powell supported Barack Obama out of racial pride and the race tinged opposition to affirmative action (without suggesting that all those who oppose affirmative action do so out of racist motivation, it is hard to believe that racism plays no role in many of those who oppose it), nor is it easy to ignore the racial animus displayed on immigration issues, or the chatter that real Americans (read white Americans) voted for Mitt Romney or the obvious implication that when Republicans realize that they need to cozy up to Latinos, they are talking about the other. There is a real sense in a powerful segment of the Republican Party that they are losing their white Christian country, a sense that makes them fearful and angry.
Whatever the racist appeal of the Republican Party and however much the shifting demographics make that appeal less attractive in national elections, the data seems to suggest that Barack Obama's loss of the white vote in the 2008 and 2012 elections was was not measurably hurt by his own race.