Karl Rove on the Defection of White Democrats

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"Bush's brain" offers some casual remarks that reveal just how much this campaign is implicitly about race.

TAMPA -- The emerging demographics of this campaign are pretty clear: To win, Barack Obama is trying to assemble a coalition of minorities and just enough white voters -- particularly college-educated white women -- to get to 51 percent, while Mitt Romney is trying to assemble a coalition of the rest of the white voters, and just enough minorities. As Ron Brownstein has persuasively argued, Obama's path to victory lies in winning 80 percent of minorities, and 40 percent of whites; Mitt Romney's corresponding formula is to win 61 percent of whites, provided whites make up 74 percent of the vote.

The math is inexorable, and it points, as Brownstein wrote, "to the depth of racial polarization shadowing this election." This unsettling reality about our politics is often, strangely, left unexplored (with some notable exceptions) even as its effects are constantly discussed, and even celebrated, at least by political professionals. On Monday, in an interesting conversation with Politico's Mike Allen, Karl Rove observed that "Obama has no chance of carrying Indiana." Rove then recounted a conversation that he said he had had over dinner last spring with Indiana's governor, Mitch Daniels:

And I said, 'Mitch, is there a white Democrat south of Indianapolis who's supporting Obama who's not a college professor in Bloomington?' [Laughter] And he stopped for a minute over his green beans and says, 'Not that I can think of.'

You know, Indiana's gone.

These remarks come at about the 9:40 mark in the video below, though the whole thing is worth watching.


To be clear: I'm not saying this is racist. I'm saying that it's striking how much we're talking about race in this campaign, without, you know, talking about race. Rove was speaking about racial politics clinically, astringently, the way political professionals do -- it is a shorthand that, as his audience's knowing laughter suggests, all these politicos comprehend. The same sort of analysis leads operatives of all stripes to make recommendations about how to energize target groups by exploiting race and class divides. That's the campaign we're all experiencing.

Speaking of which, if you watch the video, you'll see that while Rove didn't venture a theory for why whites have moved away from Obama in Indiana, he did propose one for a similar dynamic in North Carolina. There, he said, in 2008 "New South independents" (meaning, I think, white independents) who were "racial moderates, economic conservatives" had supported Obama in the belief that "this will be really good for the country -- let's put the issue of race behind us." But now they are disappointed in Obama because he's "done a lousy job on the economy, and he's not a fiscal conservative." This analysis tells a story that Obama was elected, in the first place, because of his race, but that whites now think this was a failed experiment. The echo is pretty hard to miss: We gave a guy a boost he didn't entirely deserve in order to correct a historic wrong; too bad he wasn't up to it. Are white voters ready to conclude that Obama is an affirmative-action president?

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James Bennet has been the editor in chief of The Atlantic since 2006. Prior to joining The Atlantic, he was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. More

"I wanted a profound and extreme talent who led quietly, was generous to others, and comported himself with collegial respect," remarked Atlantic Media chairman David Bradley when announcing his selection of James Bennet as the magazine's fourteenth editor in chief in early 2006. "On all scores, but surely these, I have conviction on James' appointment." Before joining the Atlantic staff, Bennet was the Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times. During his three years in Israel, his coverage of the Middle East conflict was widely acclaimed for its balance and sensitivity. His much-lauded long-form writing for The New York Times Magazine was responsible for catching the eye of David Bradley during his year-long search for a new editor. Upon accepting the position, Bennet told a Times reporter that he saw the Atlantic job as "a chance to help, encourage and preserve the practice of serious, long-form journalism." Bennet is a graduate of Yale University who began his journalism career at The Washington Monthly. Prior to his work in Jerusalem, he served as the Times' White House correspondent and was preparing to join its Beijing bureau when he was offered the Atlantic editorship.

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