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The Color-Coded Campaign

Why isn’t Obama doing better in the polls? The answer no one wants to hear.

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Illustrations by Rodrigo Corral  

From the eleventh-floor headquarters of Barack Obama’s campaign on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, 2008 looks a lot like 1980—with the ideological polarities reversed. Then as now, amid a reeling economy and an energy crisis, the electorate was craving change. It had rejected the party that held the White House; it wanted something, someone, new. In Ronald Reagan, the country confronted a charismatic, optimistic, oratorically gifted alternative running on the twin themes of hope and change, who had led a grassroots insurgency to defeat the Republican Establishment’s candidate, George H. W. Bush. But voters had their doubts about Reagan. He seemed risky, inexperienced, extreme. So the race remained tight until the final days, when Reagan assuaged those nagging fears by appearing presidential in his debate (there was just one!) with Jimmy Carter and then sprinted to a ten-point rout. And thus it will be with Obama and John McCain—just you wait and see.

The 1980 analogy is the Obamans’ reply to the political questions du jour: In a year when more than 80 percent of voters think the country is on the wrong track, when Democratic registration is surging and the Republican brand is in the crapper, when McCain is on the wrong side of the public on the war and the economy, his senior moments occurring with staggering regularity—in a year like this, why is the race so close? Why isn’t Obama creaming his rival? Why is he, at best, just a few points ahead, and stubbornly stalled below 50 percent in every national poll?

The commentariat has countless other answers at the ready. Obama is aloof, elitist, lacks the common touch. He has failed to put forward a powerful economic message. He is cut from the same cloth as past Democrats seen as too weak, too effete, too liberal. His calculated dash to the center has left him looking, in the words of GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, like “an ever-changing work-in-progress … as authentic as a pair of designer jeans.”

Yet, as Castellanos admits to me, all these explanations “leave many things unspoken.” Or perhaps just one big thing. Obama, after all, isn’t having trouble with African-American voters or Hispanic voters or young voters. Where he’s lagging is among white voters, and with older ones in particular. Call me crazy, but isn’t it possible, just possible, that Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he is, you know, black? “Of course it is,” says another prominent Republican operative. “It’s the thing that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s obviously a huge factor.”

The desire to ignore the elephant in the room is easy to understand, but Obama will not have that luxury. With the Jeremiah Wright fiasco, Obama was stripped of his post-racial image, transformed in the eyes of many whites from a candidate who happened to be black into a black candidate. And now he faces a Republican machine intent on blackening him further still. Add to that his exotic background (Kenyan father, Indonesian upbringing), his middle name, his urbanity and intellectualism, and the scale of the challenge ahead for him comes into sharp relief. Whereas Reagan was an otherwise familiar archetype who needed to convince America that he was neither senile nor crazy, Obama has to make the country comfortable with the most unusual profile of any person ever to come within spitting distance of occupying the White House—while at the same time preventing the election from becoming a race consumed by race.

Achieving the first of those objectives will be difficult enough. Although Obama and his people are laboring mightily to expand the electorate—by driving up turnout among black voters and the young—even if they succeed wildly in that endeavor, the central hurdle to Obama’s election will be white voters. The pollster Thom Riehle, who founded the AP/Ipsos survey and is now a partner at the firm RT Strategies, calculates that even if black turnout rises by 25 percent from 2004 (and Obama wins 92 percent), if Hispanic turnout holds steady (and Obama wins 60 percent of it, seven points better than John Kerry did), and the under-50 vote rises by 5 percent (and Obama wins half of young white voters), the Democrat would still need to win 40 percent of the overall paleface vote to prevail in November, one point less than Kerry garnered and two points less than Al Gore did in 2000.

“This is a daunting task as the first black candidate for president,” Riehle tells me. “To get there, he’s got to win roughly the same proportion of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents that all other Democrats get. If he doesn’t, he’s in a world of trouble. He can’t win it just by changing the electorate.”


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