Election 2012: Race, Religion Play Smaller Roles in Presidential Election

Valerie Johnson Photo 

Dr. Valerie Johnson talks about the role race is playing
in the presidential election. (Photo by Josclynn Brandon)

By Josclynn Brandon
The Red Line Project

Posted: Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012

Now that the presidential debates have ended and voting day is just around the corner, what will be deciding factors in this year’s election?

DePaul University political science professors Dr. Valerie Johnson and Scott Hibbard discussed on Wednesday night whether race and religion will play a role at all. 

“When President Obama was first elected in 2008, many people saw it as proof that there were no longer issues of race in this country,” Johnson said.

“On one hand, the polls show race is no longer an issue, but nonetheless you have all these racial things occurring.”

Johnson presented a PowerPoint that showed the statistics of socioeconomic disparity. The percentages of poverty and unemployment rates were much higher for blacks and Latinos than their white counterparts. Although only one percent of the country still considers race to be an issue, Johnson said  it still remains as a part of American life, hence, also a part of American politics and this year’s presidential election.

“There’s still socioeconomic inequality that’s race coded. When you look at advantages and disadvantages in American society, it does appear that they are very race related.” 

However, Johnson’s big question of the night was, “Will race be a decisive factor in the election, meaning will it cost Obama the election?”

Probably not.

Race did not cost him the election in 2008. President Obama received 53 percent of the popular vote, the best performance for any Democrat since 1964.

“On one hand, Obama lost some votes from whites,” said Johnson, “but on the other hand, needless to say there were white liberals and minorities who voted for Obama because of race.”

Johnson said the place where race may play a factor in this year’s election, will be voter ID and early voting laws. More than 30 states considered laws that would require voters to present a photo ID, three states passed laws that required proof of citizenship in order to register and seven other states shortened the early voting time frame.

“Is this an attempt to suppress the voting rights and participation of minorities and other Democratic-leaning constituencies?” she said.

She says that African-Americans have disproportionately embraced early voting, and recalled a study that was done in metro Cleveland where it was reported that African Americans used early voting 26 times the rate of white voters.

“When you look at racial animus and you look at these voter id and early voting laws, this is where race may have the most significant effect,” Johnson said.

“Another threat that may be racially motivated is the voter challenge threat. The Tea Party has mobilized poll watchers to challenge those they believe to be ineligible to vote. How do you determine something like that? When you look at the history of these voter challenges, they date back to 1870s when segregation challenged the rights of newly emancipated African Americans to vote.”

Scott Hibbard PhotoRace wasn’t the only issue that was discussed. Hibbard (left) talked about religion, and what little role it has played in this year’s presidential election. It came up only once -- when talking about abortion -- in the vice presidential debate and had little mention in the three presidential debates.

“It’s not like religion is not there, it is, it’s just much more subtle and much less overt than in recent years,” Hibbard said.

In previous elections, religion came into play with cultural issues; such as abortion, gay marriage or pray in school. It’s a way for candidates to connect with the electorate on identity issues and for them to clothe their political position in a moral framework.

 “I’m a good American, a good Christian American,” Hibbard said. “You can trust me, I’m an honest politician because I’m a good god fearing Christian.”

Hibbard said there are few reasons why religion isn’t being used in this year’s election. The first being that cultural issues are not the main concern in this year’s election, the state of the economy is.

“What people are concerned about is their house, where’s the future?” he said.

Playing too much on cultural issues could have some backlash. Romney thinks he can win on economic issues, so he's focusing on that. Romney is a Mormon, something that's been touched on only briefly in the campaigns.

“There’s a real danger in over politicizing religion in this campaign for Romney because he’s a Mormon,” Hibbard said. “He’s really bent over backwards to not get into a detailed discussion because it has the danger of fracturing his home base.”

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