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October 20, 2008
Some Questions (and
Answers) About the Election and Race
With just two weeks to go until Election Day, Barack Obama enjoys a huge
lead in both the national polls and in virtually every poll of
battleground states. He and running mate Joseph Biden have also won
nearly every major poll of who won the presidential debates. He holds
advantages in money, organization and enthusiasm, and every new headline
about the economic meltdown makes a Republican victory less and less
But there’s one elephant in the room that complicates matters, and that
is, of course, race. Much has been said on the subject, and so without
further ado, a few questions (and answers) about the 2008 election and
If Obama loses, is
racism to blame?
The outcome of every
election has a thousand factors and a thousand explanations, so it’s
unlikely that racism would be the only reason for such a defeat. But if
Obama’s vote total significantly underperforms other Democrats, and the
exit poll data provides certain indicators? We’ll find out on election
What makes you think
those opposing Obama are racists?
To be clear, I believe
that the vast, vast majority of those not voting for Obama will be doing
so for reasons having nothing to do with racism, and I don’t believe for
a second that the 2008 election is a referendum on whether one is or is
not a racist.
But I’ve talked to enough people about the election, seen and read
enough discussion and seen enough official Republican fliers to know
that this country includes many, many people who oppose Obama at least
partially for racist reasons. Anyone who denies that either isn’t paying
attention, or chooses not to.
So does racial
prejudice dictate people’s votes?
Sometimes, but less
than you’d think. Ben Smith filed an astonishing report last week in The
Politico, quoting an Obama volunteer who has canvassed in Fishtown, a
largely white, working-class area of Philadelphia. This canvasser has
heard Obama called the n-word and everything else, but . . . even the
people calling him that may vote for him anyway, due to the state of the
John McCain, several commenters joked, has run such a horrible campaign
that he’s convinced racists to vote for a black man.
So if Obama wins, does
that mean racism is a thing of the past?
Not exactly. It would prove that racism couldn’t prevent an
Obama presidency, but not that it is entirely a spent force.
Is there anything to
this Bradley Effect?
Almost certainly not.
The effect, for the uninitiated, is the belief that the votes of
African-American candidates are overrepresented, because white voters
falsely tell pollsters about their intentions to vote for the black
believe this is largely bunk, based on several factors. One, aside from
New Hampshire, Obama never underperformed expected results in the more
than 50 primary contests. Two, polls are both much more prevalent and
much more sophisticated today than in 1982. Three, racial attitudes have
changed a bit too. And four, I’m not so convinced that people are lying
to pollsters on a massive scale. Does anyone care that much what
pollsters think about them?
Hasn’t Obama benefited
from being black? Wouldn’t he not be where he is today if he were a
This is the sort of question asked only by Geraldine Ferraro, as well as
the type of Fox News commentators who believe that no one is racist,
except for Al Sharpton. Clearly, being black is such a major advantage
in presidential contests that there’s never been a black president or
party nominee, ever, until now.
If people won't vote
for Obama because he's black, that's racist. But if people do vote for
him because he's black, that's not. Why the double standard?
I don’t know that it can be ascertained that anyone is
voting for Obama “because he’s black.” But why the double standard? I’d
say historical context. For a large chunk of our nation’s history, it
was legal to own slaves, and for another large chunk, African-Americans
were systematically discriminated against. And in that entire 200-plus
years no person of any color besides white has gotten anywhere close to
I'm voting for Obama, and his race probably isn't one of the top 10
reasons why. But I don't deny, nor should anyone, that the election of
an African-American to the presidency would be a momentous historical
occasion, as well as an absolutely wonderful thing for this country. Not
only would it provide an amazing contrast with the past, but it would
send a message to the entire nation and entire planet: The leadership of
the free world is no longer restricted to white males only.
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