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The Color-Coded Campaign

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Photo-illustration by Henry Jansen  

What makes Obama’s task of scoring white votes at Kerry-Gore levels so formidable is, to put it bluntly, racial prejudice. Difficult though it is to measure, the exit polls from the Democratic primaries offer a sense of the degree to which anti-black animus hurt Obama in his battle with Hillary Clinton. In a number of key swing states, the percentage of voters who backed Clinton and who said that “the race of the candidates” was “important” in their decision was alarmingly high: in New Jersey, 9; in Ohio and Pennsylvania, more than 11. The writer John Judis reckons, therefore, that in the general election (where the voting population is markedly less liberal than in the primaries) in those states, “15 to 20 percent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents may not support [Obama] for the same reason.”

Obama’s current standing in the polls offers some reason to hope that such forecasts will prove too pessimistic. He is holding his own among white women, running just behind McCain throughout June and July, according to Gallup. And another recent national poll had Obama leading McCain among white working-class voters by a margin of 47 to 37 percent (a result that will surely have Clinton and her backers shaking their heads in bafflement). But McCain is whipping the hopemonger among white men, with Obama consistently attracting support in the meager mid-thirties. And his gains among younger whites, according to the Pew Research Center, have largely been offset by his weakness with older Caucasians.

The question is just how accurate any of these numbers are. Polling on African-American candidates has often been unreliable in the past, overstating support for them, coughing up large blocs of alleged undecideds who actually have no intention of voting for a black contender but are too embarrassed to say so. “I know a lot of Republicans who are aware of surveys in this race that ask the ballot question ‘Who are you voting for?’ and then ask the ‘Who are your neighbors voting for?’ question,” says a GOP operative, referring to a common pollsters’ tactic of seeing through obfuscation revolving around race. “And between the first and second question, you see a five-to-ten-point shift in the answers. There’s a great big lump under the rug.”

Obama has to make the country comfortable with the most unusual profile of anyone ever to come within spitting distance of occupying the White House.

Indeed, as the marathon Democratic nomination saga made evident, Obama’s historic candidacy has proven to be a pollsters’ nightmare. Even now, there is intense dispute about whether the so-called Bradley effect—named after the African-American former mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley, whose race for governor of California became synonymous with white voters misleading survey-takers about their intentions—helps explain Clinton’s shock-the-world comeback victory in New Hampshire. And in primaries too numerous to list, exit polls overpredicted Obama’s performance, leading cable commentators to hint that blowouts were at hand, only to watch the results roll in and prove tighter than anyone expected.

What’s clear, however, is that among older, less-educated white voters, there is a pronounced, albeit inchoate, unease with Obama’s “otherness”—one that the McCain operation is moving swiftly to exploit, with what promises to be an increasingly race-freighted campaign. The images in its recent ads are ingeniously coded, and thus easily misread (or denied). The Paris Hilton–Britney Spears commercial, for instance, was interpreted by many on the left as raising the specter of miscegenation. But the real subtext of the ad was to paint Obama as a featherweight figure whose fame is undeserving, the result of “natural” gifts as opposed to hard work or skill. As Adam Serwer argued in The American Prospect, “the ad never mentions Obama’s race as the source of his celebrity, but it doesn’t have to—it’s been part of the campaign long enough for the point to be implicit. In short, this ad is Geraldine Ferraro’s attack done ‘right,’ in the sense that it does not directly implicate the McCain campaign as exploiting racial tensions.”

This sort of appeal is part of a long, ignoble, often devastatingly effective tradition in the GOP—now updated for a more sophisticated, media-savvy, and scrutiny-heavy era, in which overt race-baiting might not play. And so was the response of the McCain people when Obama called them out on their tactics, saying the GOP was trying to “scare” voters because he “doesn’t look like the other presidents on those dollar bills”: the charge that Obama had branded McCain a racist (when he said no such thing), the claim that Obama was casting himself as a victim. With these ripostes, the McCainians were deploying traditional anti-affirmative-action lingo, painting their foe as demanding, and benefiting from, special treatment.

The consensus is nearly universal, and correct, that Obama’s gambit was a tactical mistake: It put him at the center of an argument over race and racism that he simply cannot win—because the argument itself is prone to alienating the very voters he is trying to court. But regarding the question of how Obama should respond to similarly race-loaded attacks as the fall campaign unfolds, opinions among Democrats differ.


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