Race and the presidential race, again

More analysts are concluding that Barack Obama is being hurt by being black. How do we know if they're right, and what Obama should do?

Published August 16, 2008 10:46AM (EDT)

The invaluable Bob Somerby is doing something I wish I'd gotten around to: Drilling down into poll data to try to understand how large race looms in the presidential race for Barack Obama. Lately the new conventional wisdom is, it's a big problem. Another writer I admire, New York magazine's John Heilemann, looked at Obama's virtual tie with John McCain this week in his piece "The Color-Coded Race," and concluded: "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.'" (I talk about Somerby and Heilemann's take on the issue in my Current video this week; text continues below.)

Somerby doesn't discuss Heilemann directly, but he's not so sure about the role of race. He ably deconstructs Charles Blow's disturbing and influential New York Times Op-Ed, "Racism and the Race," poking holes in Blow's data as well as his interpretation of it. The poll Blow hyped found that 5 percent of white voters said they wouldn't vote for a black candidate, and 19 percent said most whites they knew would not. Blow concluded that reporting of others' views produced the most reliable number, which Somerby challenges, since Blow doesn't give any reason why it's more reliable (presumably, it's because people are more comfortable saying others are racist than admitting they are). Neither figure breaks down how many of the whites polled are Republicans, and thus not likely to vote for any Democrat this year. But the amazing thing Somerby found, in the same poll, is that roughly the same percent of black voters said they wouldn't vote for a black presidential candidate, and most of the people they know wouldn't either (6 percent and 16 percent of black voters, respectively).

Somerby finds that most exit polling during the primaries made similar mistakes -- either it didn't separate out Democrats from Republicans, or, when polling voters who said race was a big factor in their votes, didn't separate blacks from whites. He promises to drill deeper into the conflicting data in the Daily Howler next week. We can't wait.

Not surprisingly, since Heilemann thinks race is a big problem for Obama, while Somerby just isn't sure, their prescriptions for what to do about it differ. Heilemann says "ignoring race is not an option for Obama. Nor is simply changing the subject." Yet he doesn't really have a clear approach. He thinks Obama has to elucidate his very American identity without focusing on race, "to talk about race, in other words, without talking about race." It may be a measure of how tough this issue is for Obama and Democrats that I walked away from Heilemann's provocative article having no idea how his vision translates into action for Obama in the real world.

Somerby is clearer, especially about what he thinks won't work: He thinks it was a mistake for Obama even to hint slyly at some people's racial reservations about him, with the quip about not looking like "those other presidents on the dollar bill." I thought Obama's joke worked; Somerby saw it as a potential racial dog-whistle that white voters would find unfair, especially because it was part of a bigger complaint that McCain's nasty campaign is mainly racial in its nastiness. (And polls back up Somerby, not me; a Rasmussen poll found that most Americans thought Obama's dollar bill remark was "racist.") Not surprisingly, Somerby thinks the mainstream media's pro-GOP bias (abetted by many liberals) is far more demonstrably damaging to Obama than racism. He's going to continue his odyssey into the wilds of polling data on racial issues next week, and I look forward to it.

In the meantime, I just keep thinking the keys for Obama are hitting McCain hard on the economy and on his ties to George Bush. I have begun to think more like Somerby: without more solid evidence of racism, he has to run an upbeat, inclusive campaign that gives most voters the benefit of the doubt about their racial open-mindedness. If it turns out we're wrong, and there are fewer such voters than we all hope, there will be plenty of time after the election to analyze the data and figure out what to do next time around.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections