Graph depicting Racial Political Polarization
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Racial Political Polarization

Description: The percentages reflected in the map are the difference between the percentage of non-Hispanic whites who responded to exit polls indicating that they had voted for President Obama and the percentage of non-whites or Hispanics who indicated that they did. For example, if in a given state, 40% of whites supported President Obama and 60% of minorities did, the degree of racial political polarization reflected on the map would be 20%.

The data comes from the 2008 exit polls. Unfortunately, no organization conducted exit polls in every state in 2012. The data file below contains the data from the states that did complete exit polling in 2012.

To clarify, the number of whites or minorities in a state does not affect these results. This shows the level of support President Obama had from each community as a percentage, so a state with a very small number of minorities whose political views differed markedly from the political views of whites would be just a polarized as a state with a large number of minorities whose views differed equally strongly.

Sources: CNN

Data: Excel

Last updated: October 25, 2015

Discussion: People tend to think of the relationship between race and voting at the national level. Pollsters and political strategists attempt to estimate how a state will vote based on the racial makeup of that state and national polling data by race. That approach assumes that the racial differences in voting are relatively uniform nationally. And, that is how the pundits talk about race and politics and it is, I think, how most Americans think about the issue.

But, the data does not support that view. In fact, race seems to be entirely irrelevant to voting in some states while it is the overwhelmingly dominant factor in others. For example, in Oregon, New Hampshire and Maine, whites and minorities voted for each candidate at exactly the same rates. On the other end of the spectrum, in Alabama, only 10% of whites voted for Obama, but 93% of minorities did. In Mississippi, 11% of whites voted for Obama, but 95% of minorities did. How one voted in Alabama and Mississippi was almost entirely a function of the color of their skin.

The pattern does not fall along red/blue lines. While the south is deeply Republican and extremely politically polarized racially, other heavily Republican states, like Idaho, Utah, Wyoming and Oklahoma had relatively little correlation between race and politics. In more conservative states in the west, the minorities voted much more conservatively than they did in the nation as a whole, and in the more liberal states, whites voted much more liberally than they did elsewhere. The pattern is regional. Politics in the south appears to be hyper-polarized along racial lines, and the further a state is away from there, the less polarized it is.

It is important to note that this data is from 2008, which is the most recent presidential election in which exit polls were performed in every state. In 2012, exit polls were only performed in 30 states. Much has changed since 2008 in terms of racial polarization. We have had a black president, which has stirred up various reactions, and the Republican Party has heavily emphasized increasingly conservative positions on immigration and race. In the states where exit polling was performed in 2012, the average state became 6% more racially polarized. However, the pattern is not very consistent. Some states became less polarized and others became more polarized. For example, Arizona became dramatically more polarized, presumably due to the immigration clashes. Today, it would be two shades darker on the map. Alabama became slightly less polarized. It would be one shade lighter on the map in 2012. But, the general pattern is that the nation appears to have become slightly more divided along racial lines on political questions.

It is also important to note that different minority groups tend to vote differently. For example, in 2012, 93% of blacks, 73% of Asians and 71% of Hispanics voted Democratic. So, we do tend to see greater polarization in states where the primary minority community is black people than we do in states where the primary minority community is Hispanic or Asian people. That would create up to a gap that is up to 20 points wider in a state where every single minority was black than it would in a state where every single minority was Asian. But, of course, all states have a mix of different minority groups, so the real difference is somewhat less stark than that. In any case, that difference does not come close to explaining the gaps. For example, in Wyoming, the gap between how whites and minorities vote is 11% and in Mississippi it is 84%, so even the full 20 points would not explain much of that variation.

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