Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Obama's Race

People have been wondering for quite a few months now whether Barack Obama's race would play a role in the 2008 election. Janet Elder over at The New York Times has an article discussing this topic (or at least one aspect of it). In relatively recent history, there has been a phenomenon which allows black candidates to poll better than they actually perform in the election. It has been hypothesized that white voters like to think that they are comfortable voting for black candidates, but come election day, they cannot overcome their reservations. So, will this happen to Obama?

I don't think so. In a very recent example, Harold Ford, Jr. (a black Senate candidate from Tennessee) actually performed slightly better in the election than he did in the polls. There might be two explanations for why the phenomenon didn't happen. First, perhaps Americans are getting less racist. Compared to the 1950s, I would say this is generally true. However, I think another reason explains it better, which may, in a way, be linked to the first. I don't think Ford was viewed as (and I don't think Obama will be viewed as) a "black candidate," but rather "a candidate who happens to be black." Now, perhaps that subtle distinction is only made because Americans are less racist, but it's important. After all, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton would be viewed as "black candidates" and they would lose for that reason.

So, when a black candidate can be viewed as "a candidate who happens to be black," I don't think there will be much of an effect. After all, the only people who would completely rule out voting for the latter would be complete racists, and they would not be compelled to seem more open-minded when questioned by pollsters. So, nowadays, I don't think this phenomenon applies to so-called "candidates who happen to be black."

But, there is something else to think about. As the article points out, 90% of Americans say they would be "completely comfortable voting for a qualified presidential candidate who was black;" however, only 55% of Americans say that "Americans are ready to elect an African American or black as president." 35% say no. So, that means that at least 25% of people are comfortable with voting for a black candidate, but do not think that Americans are ready. Odd.

But, even with this mystery, I don't think Obama's race will effect him. The 35% of people who say America isn't ready are almost certainly Republicans anyway, so I don't think there's much to worry about.

Oddly enough, black people are tending to support Clinton more than Obama. He is not "a black man's black man," at least not in the way someone like Al Sharpton is. He is a black man who can draw a very broad base of support, because he does not campaign based on his race or based on racial policies.

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