Do Blacks and Whites See Obama through Race-Tinted Glasses? A Comparison of Obama's and Clinton's Approval Ratings

By Abrajano, Marisa; Burnett, Craig M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Do Blacks and Whites See Obama through Race-Tinted Glasses? A Comparison of Obama's and Clinton's Approval Ratings


Abrajano, Marisa, Burnett, Craig M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


A recent headline from the Gallup Poll hails that, "Obama Approval Sinks to New Lows Among Whites, Hispanics." (1) The latest Gallup Poll conducted in August 2011 indeed reveals that President Barack Obama's monthly approval rating is at an all-time low among all racial groups. The lowest approval rating amongst these groups is from Whites; less than a majority, 44%, approved of Obama's performance. In this same poll, Obama's support among Blacks also dropped by approximately eight percentage points to a new low of 84%. Despite this recent decline, Black support remains nearly double that of Whites.

This discrepancy has led many pollsters to conclude that a "racial gap" exists in President Obama's job approval ratings. In particular, political pundits have focused on the gap between Blacks and Whites, where the difference in support for President Obama has been as much as 51 percentage points in the Gallup Poll. Some political commentators and media outlets attribute this gap to the fact that Obama is the first ethnic/racial minority to occupy the White House. On the other hand, the existence of a White-Black gap could merely reflect the differences in the political preferences and partisanship of White Americans and ethnic/racial minorities. Today, a majority of White Americans identify as Republicans, while most ethnic/racial minorities--and Blacks especially--identify as Democrats. How can we determine which of these dynamics is responsible for the disparity we observe in approval ratings?

One way to do so is to consider the following counterfactual scenario--would we expect to see a similar White-Black gap in the approval ratings of former President Clinton, the last Democrat in office? In addition to being a Democrat, many considered Clinton to be the nation's "first Black president." (2) While there are a number of important differences between Presidents Clinton and Obama in addition to their race, Clinton is easily the best comparison case for Obama because of his high approval ratings among blacks. By comparing Presidents Obama and Clinton, we assess whether the Black-White gap has its roots in individual partisanship or ethnic solidarity. We investigate this question by analyzing CNN polling data spanning Obama's inauguration in January 2009 to June 2011. (3) In keeping with this time period, we also examine Time/CNN polling data that begins with Clinton's inauguration in January 1993 to June 1995. (4) We also analyze the differences between President Clinton's and President Obama's job performance ratings at the individual level with a multivariate analysis of presidential approval.

This article proceeds as follows. The following section briefly discusses the literature on racial voting and the partisan attachments of racial and ethnic minorities in the United States. Next, we discuss our research design and methods, followed with a discussion of our results. The final section concludes.

Variations in Political Preferences by Race and Ethnicity

Historically, Blacks have been strong and loyal supporters of the Democratic Party; their average support for the Democrats hovers somewhere near 90% in both presidential and midterm elections (Abrajano and Alvarez 2010; Frymer 1999). Up until the 1960s, both parties received at least 90% of their votes from White voters. Shortly thereafter, Democratic defection among largely Southern Whites began in response to the Civil Rights Movement, the increased political participation of African Americans, and growing Black support of the Democratic Party, which fundamentally reshaped the partisan political landscape (Carmines and Stimson 1989, Huckfeldt and Kohfeld 1989). As Blacks joined the Democratic Party in large numbers, and the Democratic and Republican Parties diverged on racial policies, White identification with the Democratic Party, particularly in the South, declined significantly.

Currently, a larger and larger share of Democratic support comes from racial and ethnic minorities, while the share of Republican support coming from Whites has held steady. …

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