Analyses of the recent US presidential elections indicate that young people, African Americans, Latinos, women, and educated whites combined their votes to re-elect Barack Obama, give the Democrats a larger lead in the Senate, narrow the Republican margin of seats in the House, and win more votes at the national level than the Republicans. After the results of the election, the Republicans second-guessed reasons for their defeat: stances on social issues, underestimation of Obama's ground game, the party being out of touch with changing demographics, Hurricane Sandy breaking Romney's momentum, the liberal media, the meat grinder primaries that took a toll on Romney, and as Tea Party adherents would chime, the Republicans were not sufficiently conservative, or in other words, they lacked ideological purity. Analyses for Obama's victory and Romney's loss abound, but too little attention has been paid to the role of race and ethnicity in the elections, the former an elephant in the US house since Africans were involuntarily brought to the United States in the first quarter of the 17th century.
During the campaign, a writer in The New York Times opined that "race was less a dynamic for Obama than in 2008, but is still a factor in his political fortunes." However, an examination of the behaviour of candidates, their surrogates, and party supporters led to the conclusion that race was the central theme of this seminal election. It was mere wishful thinking that the election of the first black president would nullify race as a fact of life and a factor in elections given the history of slavery, segregation, and the black struggle for the vote in the United States.
Fewer than ten days before the election, the Associated Press released the findings of a poll conducted by Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and NORC at the University of Chicago. Among the poll's findings were that racial attitudes had not improved in the last four years since Obama's election, and that 51 per cent of Americans explicitly expressed anti-black attitudes, whether they recognised those feelings or not.
The poll concluded that racial prejudice could hurt the president's re-election and could cost him about two percentage points in the popular vote. About a month before this poll appeared, Dr Anthony Greenwald had arrived at a similar conclusion at the Convention of the American Psychological Association, but framed it more tentatively, stating that "Voters' racial attitudes, conscious and unconscious, may be a significant factor in this year's election."
Like it or hate it, the role of the racial factor in the election was inevitable. At the centre of the dramatis personae is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, making him black in the United States. Born in Hawaii, he spent part of his early life in Indonesia; he is Christian, but rumours persist that he is Muslim with terrorist sympathies. Many, especially Republicans , refuse to see him as a human being and describe him as more foreign and as "Other''. Hence the ridiculous call for him to produce his birth certificate by the likes of the Tea Partiers and businessman Donald Trump.
A typical campaign sign read: "Obama, you want our taxes. We want your birth certificate." While campaigning in Michigan his opponent, Mitt Romney, could not rise above the banal, stating: "I was born in Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate." The partisan crowd roared.
Other racially coded messages included one by Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House during the Clinton years and a failed Republican contender during the primaries. He labelled Mr Obama as the "Food Stamp President," alluding to the false notion that only blacks have to resort to food stamps. Romney himself lied when he declared that Mr Obama had gutted the work requirement required by Clinton's welfare programme. These coded messages are in the same category as Ronald Reagan's reference to "welfare queens''.
But the references to race were not always coded during the campaign. Actions by Republican governors to suppress the vote by passing state laws requiring new forms of IDs and curtailing early voting hours were aimed directly at the black and Hispanic communities. Offensive signs and misleading billboards were erected in their neighbourhoods. A typical sign would read if an individual had not paid a driver's ticket, he would be unable to vote. A sign reading, "Put the white back in the White House" appeared at a Romney rally, but the most blatant display of racism showed an effigy of Obama hanging from a tree branch.
This fear of all American citizens participating in the vote is in large part because of the changing demographics in the United States — the fear of a changing United States where some whites see things aren't going to be what they once were. But President Obama was re-elected and as he would say: "The country has come a long way but we've still got a long road to travel."
• Basil Ince is a retired professor
of political science