The Color-Coded Campaign

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.”

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.

In one corner are those who contend, in effect, that Obama should stay as far away from race talk as possible, shifting the argument to terrain where he can play a stronger hand. The more academically inclined cite the Princeton political scientist Tali Mendelberg, who argues in her groundbreaking 2001 book, The Race Card, that “an effective defense against implicitly racial appeals requires an issue that trumps race in the considerations of white voters.” In 2008, the most obvious such issue is the economy, the source of vast anxiety among middle- and working-class whites—and a subject on which Obama has yet to develop a strong, compelling narrative to hang his many sensible policy proposals.

Other Democrats, without denying the importance of the economy, argue that Obama needs to thwart McCain’s efforts to make the election a referendum on the challenger—by making it instead a referendum on the Bush era and its depredations, portraying McCain as their would-be extender. This faction urges Obama to be tough, to adopt a fighter’s stance, to go after the Arizonan in terms not personal or ad hominem but pointed and from the gut. Its members cheered lustily last week when Obama derided the (mindless, witless, clueless) Republican effort to mock his comments about the link between properly inflated tires and auto fuel efficiency with the slam, “It’s like these guys take pride in being ignorant.”

Far be it from me to quarrel with either of these tactics; both are necessary and, I’d wager, right around the corner. (The Obamans are no dummies.) But they also strike me as insufficient responses to the race-fueled angst that Obama’s candidacy has stirred up and that the McCain campaign plans artfully, viciously to exacerbate in the weeks ahead. In fact, they seem rooted in a denial of precisely how unsettling the prospect of an Obama presidency is in some quarters.

The truth is that ignoring race is not an option for Obama. Nor is simply changing the subject. What he needs is to find a way of talking not directly about race or racial politics but about his identity that at once elevates and grounds the conversation, that elucidates, soothes, inspires. That takes the air out of the attempts to make him seem foreign, not one of us. That places him squarely at the center of the American narrative, connecting him to values and experiences white voters—especially older ones—can readily grasp.

Obama, of course, has repeatedly demonstrated a fantastic capacity to do just that. His superb race speech in March in Philadelphia was one example. But unless McCain plays the race card more heavy-handedly than anyone familiar with his campaign expects he will, offering up another such oration would be both unnecessary and unwise. The better model is Obama’s keynote at the 2004 convention, which had the enormous virtue of rendering accessible his complex biography, of making his extraordinary story seem, if not ordinary, profoundly unthreatening. And no doubt Obama’s convention speech will be exquisitely calibrated to achieve much the same effect. It will be perhaps his best opportunity to demystify himself for the many voters who still regard him as opaque and who know surprisingly little about his lineage. (You can bet that you’ll be hearing about how his grandfather fought in Patton’s army.) To talk about race, in other words, without talking about race.

What will happen after that is a matter for prognosticators with a clearer crystal ball than mine. The reigning cliché of this election year—that we are in uncharted waters here, without either map or compass—has never been more apt than when it comes to the question of race. In October, Obama’s former pastor, Wright, is expected to publish a new book and hit the road to promote it, an occasion that might well place the topic of Obama’s blackness (along with his patriotism and his candor about what he heard in the pews in all those years at Trinity Church) squarely at the center of the national debate. How Obama handles that moment may determine whether he becomes the next occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

For many Democrats, Obama’s eventual residence there has long seemed a foregone conclusion. But cast your mind forward twenty years and imagine looking back on this election. Would it really seem strange from that vantage point if the first black major-party nominee—a guy with a thin résumé, no foreign-policy credentials in an era scarred by terrorism, a background alien to much of Wonder Bread America, and the full name Barack Hussein Obama—lost? No, it would seem inevitable. That Obama has convinced us that the opposite outcome is even possible is testament to his many gifts. The next three months will show whether they include a talent that would serve him very well in the Oval Office: the ability to conduct a necessary, indeed vital, conversation that no one really wants to have.

Correction: In “The Color-Coded Campaign,” John Heilemann wrote, “In October, [Barack] Obama’s former pastor, [Reverend Jeremiah] Wright, will publish a new book and hit the road to promote it …”. This assertion was based on Wright’s public assertion in April that he had a book in the works that would appear before the end of the year, and on statements by a number of Democrats, including some on Obama’s staff, that they were bracing for an October publication. But Heilemann’s assertion was too definitive; what he should have written was, “In October, Obama’s former pastor, Wright, is expected to publish a new book …”. According Wright’s daughter, Jeri, no such book published by her father will be published in that time frame. We sincerely regret the error.

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The Color-Coded Campaign