I was struck by how small a role race has played in Barack Obama's presidential campaign and time in office relative to what we might have expected a few years ago. His popular vote total in 2008 was very close to what the leading models forecast, and his approval trajectory in office is very similar to his predecessors.All true. But what do we make of this? Does it mean that race just doesn't matter anymore, at least in our voting decisions? That's possible. But here's another interpretation. Let's just imagine a scenario in which all the white racists in the electorate were members of just one political party. (I know full well this is not the case, but bear with me for a moment.) And let's further stipulate that race matters in this scenario -- voters vote based on their racial sentiments. All the members of the non-racist party, plus a healthy portion of the unaffiliated, would have voted for Obama in 2008, with nearly all the members of the racist party voting against him. Once in office, Obama would have near-unanimous support from members of the non-racist party and near-unanimous disapproval from the racist one.
Would such a universe appear very different from our own? This would mean that race still mattered a great deal in politics, but we're at a point in the intersection of race and party where it's almost impossible to distinguish between racial sentiment and partisanship.
I'm not saying this is the case, and I'm certainly not saying that all racists are Republicans or vice versa. I'm just suggesting that race might well still matter, even if Obama's election and trajectory in office appear similar to those of his predecessors.