John Sununu and Obama: Time to talk openly about race in Election 2012?

Romney co-chair John Sununu called Colin Powell's endorsement of President Obama racially motivated. It shows how talk about race in Election 2012 has been through insinuations and insults.

Lynne Sladky/AP/File
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu speaks during a press conference in the Republican National Committee war room situated in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, N.C., during the Democratic National Convention in September.

Is it time to start talking openly about race in the 2012 campaign?

Make no mistake: The topic has been a steady undercurrent throughout much of this election cycle. Unfortunately, for the most part, the discussion has been largely confined to ugly insinuations and counter-insinuations. Democrats have repeatedly accused the Romney campaign of using racial “dog whistles” to try to peel off support from working-class whites, while Republicans have complained about what they see as unfair accusations of racism.

One of the most frequent offenders along those lines from Democrats’ point of view, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, stirred the pot again Thursday night. Appearing on CNN, the national co-chair for the Romney campaign told host Piers Morgan that he believed Colin Powell’s endorsement of President Obama was essentially based on race.

Mr. Sununu said: “I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States – I applaud Colin for standing with him.”

He later walked back his comments, issuing a statement saying he believed Mr. Powell’s endorsement was based on “his support of the president’s policies.” But Sununu has previously come under fire for other remarks perceived as having racial implications, such as calling the president “lazy,” and saying he wished he would “learn how to be an American.”

It all raises a larger point, however – that perhaps the time has come (some might say it's way past time) to have a serious discussion about the role race is playing in the campaign.

According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, the 2012 election is, as The Post put it Friday, “shaping up to be more polarized along racial lines than any presidential contest since 1988.” The poll found Mr. Obama is currently losing whites to Mitt Romney by 60 to 37 percent, putting Obama dangerously below the 40-percent mark that most analysts believe he needs to hit among whites in order to win reelection.

By contrast, in 2008, Obama won 43 percent of the white vote (a slightly better performance, it should be noted, than that of John Kerry and Al Gore, who took 41 and 42 percent of whites, respectively). Among nonwhites, Obama appears to be performing at the same level he did in 2008, winning 80 percent.

While the loss in support among whites puts Obama’s reelection chances in obvious jeopardy, it still may not ultimately be fatal, since he currently appears to be doing somewhat better among whites in some of the states that matter most, such as Ohio. (To put it another way, Obama could be on his way to losing the white vote by historic margins in the South, but that wouldn’t necessarily affect his electoral vote total at all.)

In addition, as many analysts have noted, the white vote has become a steadily smaller share of the electorate, and no one knows exactly what portion of the total it will be this year. If minority turnout is higher than expected, that would obviously help Obama overcome his growing deficit among whites.

Still, in the face of what appears to be an obvious and growing racial divide, in an election featuring the nation’s first black president, it's striking that open discussions of race – and its impact on voting behavior – have been largely missing from the campaign.

On Friday morning, reacting to the new ABC/Post poll, National Journal’s Ron Fournier made exactly this point when he tweeted: “WaPost and others find Obama’s support among white voters eroding. How much of this, if any, related to racial prejudice? Discuss.”

Conservative writer John Podhoretz responded by tweeting back: “Right on schedule. MT @ron_fournier Obama's support among white voters eroding. How much of this, if any, related to racial prejudice?”

We’d wager nearly everyone agrees that an electorate split more sharply along racial lines than at any time in a generation is probably not a healthy state of affairs for the country. Yet it seems almost impossible to talk about the role of race in politics without immediately raising hackles on both sides. That’s a shame.

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