Does Race Really Matter

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Recently, I wrote here that the fundamentals of the 2008 race decisively favor Barack Obama. As is often the case, however, my words were met with a familiar riposte: What about the race factor? Are white Americans really ready to elect a black man as president? It’s a recurrent refrain among Democrats and even some hopeful Republicans. As Andrew Kohut wrote here, “56 percent of Democrats believe that many people will not vote for Mr. Obama because he is black.”

With the first ever African-American presidential candidate, race is certainly the great unknown of the 2008 campaign, but there is significant empirical evidence to suggest that Mr. Obama’s skin color may be far less consequential than some believe — and may even benefit him. At the very least, it is more complicated than many realize.

Arguments about race and the 2008 election play out on two levels: one, the notion that many white voters are “closet racists” and will not vote for a black man and two, that public opinion polling cannot be trusted because white voters are afraid to reveal their prejudices.

To the first point, it is incontrovertible that some whites will not vote for Barack Obama. We’ve come far as a nation; but we haven’t come all the way. According to a recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll, one-third of all white Democrats and independents have used a negative word to describe African-Americans, and racial antagonism may be costing Mr. Obama as much as six points in the polls.

However, these numbers are a bit suspect. The poll tested all Americans, not just voters and simply because someone has a partially negative view of African-Americans, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t vote for Barack Obama. The negative stereotypes that some white voters hold toward African-Americans may not necessarily have an impact on the way they think of Mr. Obama, particularly if he doesn’t seem to fit those preconceived notions. And of course, many whites who would not vote for Barack Obama because he is African-American are unlikely to vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.

The likely voting patterns of whites are more complex than often assumed. First of all, there is a general belief that white working-class Americans vote solidly Republican. But outside of the South, Al Gore won this voting bloc in 2000 and John Kerry lost it barely in 2004. In the Deep South, however, white voters support Republicans by 3 to 1, and even higher margins (in Mississippi in 2004, 85 percent of whites voted for George Bush). As the political scientist Tom Schaller points out in his book “Whistling Past Dixie,” Democrats don’t have a white working-class problem; they have a Southern problem.

Indeed, for all the discussions about Mr. Obama’s supposed exoticness to white Americans, a recent New York Times poll indicates that 66 percent of voters think Mr. Obama “shares the values most Americans live by” — a higher number than that received by Mr. McCain.

But the real fly in the ointment of the white racist argument is that it ignores the other side of the equation: the behavior of non-white voters, which is approximately a third of the population.

For example, we take for granted the fact that Mr. Obama will likely reel in close to 95 percent of the African-American vote, but this could be a deciding factor on Election Day.

By some estimates an 8 percent jump in black turnout in Nevada, over 2004, would win him the state; in Florida, a 23 percent improvement could make the difference. In Ohio in 2004, George Bush won 16 percent of African-American voters; this year if Mr. Obama wins 95 percent of the black vote, he will not need a single additional voter over what John Kerry received in 2004.

In states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio the key for Democratic victory has generally been strong African-American turnout. So even in these three states if Mr. Obama loses some white voters because of his skin color he may cancel that out with...
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