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#ROCKTHEPOLLS: The Racial Demographics (& Dangers) of National “Direction”

Of the many unlocked mysteries of this 2016 election cycle, none is more perplexing than that of the White voter. 

How the next several months unfold will hinge significantly on how that one demographic, still the largest of them all, votes in November. And it all enters significantly flammable territory in the wake of deadly police assassinations in Dallas.  Such events could turn into ugly electoral inflection points prompting ugly electoral outcomes depending on how one certain majority group responds. 

Many experts note that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would need somewhere around 63 percent or more White support – several percentage points more than what nominee Mitt Romney accrued in 2012 – to come very close to winning the White House. 

Most experts also suggest that will never happen. The most recent YouGov/Economist poll shows that if the election were held today, only 50 percent of White respondents would vote for Trump, nowhere close to the performance he’d need in November. But it also shows a narrow majority of White voters (58 percent) who say they’re voting mostly for Trump as opposed to how many (57 percent) who say they’re voting mostly for Hillary Clinton. 

It will be interesting to see what those polls say in the coming weeks as a new post-Dallas psyche sets in. 

We may not be able to extrapolate much from the hypothetical match-up Clinton vs. Trump polls thus far – other than to say it could be tight.  But what makes it so tight and so compelling are the competing attitudes of racial demographics in that assessment. 

And much of that also hinges on national mood or perceptions of how good or how bad things are in this country.  Often overlooked in public musings over the latest polls are the national barometers tracking voter sentiment about the direction of the country.  As Huffington Post aggregates “direction of country” polls, it finds a staggering average 66.5 percent of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, compared to only 25.5 percent who feel it’s on the right track. That’s a lot of people feeling really, really depressed about the state of things. 

That snapshot eerily matches some basic demographic breakdowns reflecting the composition of the national population: whites now account for 61.6 percent of the U.S. population, an all-time low (down from 69 percent just 16 years ago).  That same YouGov poll shows 71 percent of Whites feeling the country is going in the wrong direction (compared to a somewhat surprisingly smaller number of Blacks – at 51 percent – who feel the same way).  Some observers have suggested that feeling may be informed by an inability to grasp or adapt to rapid demographic changes in which “people of color” are fast becoming the national majority. Such anxiety also creates worrisome political self-preservation strategies. Northwestern University researchers Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson point to this group reaction as a “perceived status threat from the racial demographic shift.” As Craign and Richeson note: “[Perceived] group-status threat, triggered by exposure to the majority-minority shift, increases Whites’ endorsement of conservative political ideology and policy positions. In both experiments, the addition of a simple paragraph stating that Whites are likely to remain at the top of the future racial hierarchy in a majority-minority America eliminated the conservative shift otherwise observed after exposure to the racial-shift information.” Basically, Whites skew much more conservative, politically, when there’s a perception they are losing longstanding political, social or economic control. 

The big question is what that means in this presidential race and down ballot races. How much does public opinion on the direction of the country shape an election? And could many Whites react viscerally at the election polls based off a nervous assessment that “we’re surrounded”? Some clues are found in a close examination of a recent Pew Research survey on race relations. There, a majority of Whites view cross-group collaboration and engagement as the way towards “racial equality” – but, it’s unclear if they are considering “racial progress” or have fathomed what social and economic progress means for long struggling African Americans.  When asked if “working to get more Black people to elected office” was a goal towards achieving racial equality, only 24 percent of Whites agreed with that. How that rubs off on Hillary Clinton, as she embraces the legacy of the first Black president (her former boss) on the campaign trail and will be viewed as a much more favorable candidate for Black voters, remains an open mystery.  What is clear is that there could be quite a few nervous Whites who, not very much unlike anxious Brits during the recent Brexit vote, may act out on November 8th.   

CHARLES D. ELLISON is a veteran political strategist and Executive Producer/Host of “The Ellison Report” on WEAA 88.9 FM. He can be reached @ellisonreport on Twitter.