The 2012 election is shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988, with President Obama experiencing a steep drop in support among white voters from four years ago.
At this stage in 2008, Obama trailed Republican John McCain by 7 percentage points among white voters. Even in victory, Obama ended up losing white voters by 12 percentage points, according to that years exit polls.
But now, Obama has a deficit of 23 percentage points, trailing Republican Mitt Romney 60 percent to 37 percent among whites, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC national tracking poll.
That presents a significant hurdle for the president – and suggests he will need to achieve even larger margins of victory among women and minorities, two important parts of the Democratic base, in order to win re-election.
Overall, Romney has edged ahead in the presidential contest, winning 50 percent of likely voters for the first time in the campaign, according to The Post-ABC poll. As Romney hits 50 percent, the president stands at 47 percent, his lowest tally since before the national party conventions.
The three-point edge gives Romney his first apparent – but not statistically significant – advantage in the national popular vote.
The challenger has a clear, nine-point lead when it comes to whom voters trust to handle the economy, which has long been the central issue of the contest. He has also effectively neutralized what has been a consistent fallback for Obama: economic empathy.
Romneys momentum in these areas comes from advances against Obama among white voters.
The slippage among whites is something of a setback for Obama, who campaigned on bridging the racial divide in his election and has sought to minimize rifts that have arisen in his presidency.
Although Democrats typically win minorities and fare worse among white voters than their Republican rivals, Obama outpaced previous losing Democratic candidates with both groups.
Less than two weeks before the election, the evidence suggests a much more sharply divided country will head to the polls.
As he did in 2008, Obama gets overwhelming support from non-whites, who made up a record high proportion of the overall electorate four years ago.
In that contest, 80 percent of all non-whites supported Obama, including 95 percent of black voters, according to the exit polls. In The Post-ABC tracking poll released Thursday, Obama again wins 80 percent of non-whites, and support for his re-election is nearly universal among African Americans.
In other words, Romney appears to have made no inroads in chipping away at Obamas support among Hispanics and African Americans.
Dismal support for Republicans among minorities is a long-term problem for the GOP in a rapidly diversifying nation. Fully 91 percent of Romneys support comes from white voters.
At the same time, Democrats cannot count on the share of the white vote continuing to drop as it has in recent years. The share of white voters in The Post-ABC polling is similar to what it was in 2008, when whites made up a record-low 74 percent of all voters.
The erosion of support Obama has experienced since his muted performance in the first presidential debate has been particularly acute among white men, whites without college degrees and white independents, the new tracking poll found.
Romneys advantage here comes even as 48 percent of white voters in the tracking data released Monday said Romney, as president, would do more to favor the wealthy; 37 percent said he would do more for the middle class. Most non-college and college-educated whites alike saw Obama as doing more to favor those in the middle, not the wealthy.
There is no way to tell what role, if any, racial prejudice may play on either side of the racial gap. But the data suggest that concern about the economy is amplifying the division, as Obamas decline in support among white voters appears to be closely linked to views of his handling of the economy. And yet minorities have suffered severe unemployment and housing foreclosures in the current economy.