Friday, April 11, 2008
Race Is Still the X Factor for Obama
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
There’s a good and bad note for Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama in the recent exit polls of white voters in Democratic primaries. The good note is that by a lopsided majority of six to one whites said that race was not a factor in considering whether to back Obama or not. That pretty much conforms to virtually every poll that’s been taken since Obama tossed his hat in the presidential ring a year ago. His red state Democratic primary and caucus wins and the handful of endorsements he’s gotten from the red state Democratic senators and governors seem to bolster the poll findings as well as his camp’s contention that the majority of whites have bought his race neutral change and unity pitch.
The bad note for him, though, is buried in the racial rose tinged poll numbers. In fact, they were actually buried there even as he rolled up big numbers in his primary victories in Georgia, Mississippi, Maryland, Virginia, Alabama, and South Carolina, and the District of Columbia. Blacks make up a substantial percentage of the vote in those states, and he bagged eighty to ninety percent of their vote. But much less noted was that Clinton got almost sixty five to seventy percent of white votes.
It wasn’t just the reverse racial numbers for Clinton and Obama. Obama does incredibly well in netting the vote of college educated, upscale whites. But Clinton does just as well in bagging support from lower income downscale, and rural white voters. This has huge potential downside implications for Obama in a head to head battle with John McCain in the red states. A significant percent of the voters there are lower income, rural and less educated whites. Obama banks that he can pry one or two of the red states from the GOP. Yet, if he can’t convince Clinton’s white vote supporters, and they are Democrats, to back him, the chances are nil that he’ll have any more success with Republican and independent white voters in these states.
A hint of that came in the Democratic primary in Ohio. Clinton beat out Obama in the primary, and she did it mainly with white votes. But that wasn’t the whole story. Nearly one quarter of whites in Ohio flatly said race did matter in voting. Presumably that meant that they would not vote for a black candidate no matter how politically attractive or competent he was.
An even bigger hint of the race difficulty could come in Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary. The voter demographics in the state perfectly match those in Ohio. A huge percent of Pennsylvania voters are blue collar, anti-big government, socially conservative, pro defense, and intently patriotic, and there’s a tormenting history of a racial polarization in the state. Pundit James Carville has even described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in between. Carville’s characterization is hyperbolic, but devastatingly accurate. Take the state’s two big, racially diverse cities out of the vote equation, and Pennsylvania would be rock solid red state Republican. While polls show some fluctuation in Clinton’s decisive lead over Obama there, she still has a solid lead.
The near unanimous backing that whites give to the notion of voting for a black candidate for president also deserves to be put to a political test to see how much truth there is to it. The question: “Would you vote for a black candidate for president?” is a direct question, and to flatly say no to it makes one sound like a bigot, and in the era of verbal racial correctness (ask Don Imus), it’s simply not fashionable to come off to pollsters sounding like one. That’s hardly the only measure of a respondent’s veracity. In a 2006 study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, a Yale political economist found that white Republicans are 25 percentage points more likely to cross over and vote for a Democratic senatorial candidate against a black Republican foe. The study also found that in the near twenty year stretch from 1982 to 2000, when the GOP candidate was black, the greater majority of white independent voters backed the white candidate.
Republicans and independents weren’t the only ones guilty of dubious Election Day color-blindness. Many Democrats were too. In House races, the study found that Democrats were nearly 40 percent less likely to back a black Democratic candidate than a white Democrat.
Obama’s Democratic primary and caucus wins certainly show that many white voters will vote for him. They obviously feel that he has the right presidential stuff. But a large number of whites aren’t quite ready to strap on their racial blinders even for a candidate who has leaned way over backward to run a race neutral, bipartisan, unity campaign. The big question is just how many whites will refuse to strap on the racial blinders on Election Day. That’s still the X factor for Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House (Middle Passage Press, February 2008).