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Does the Race Issue Hurt Obama?

David Domke is Professor of Communication and Head of Journalism at the University of Washington.  Together with Kevin Coe he wrote The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America. To learn more about the book check out their handy website here, to read more posts by Domke and Coe click here. In the post below Domke examines the role of race in the Presidential election.

The consensus among political journalists and pundits is that if race becomes a salient matter in the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama is in trouble. The thinking goes something like this: if white voters are reminded that Obama is black, or start to think through a racial prism, the nation’s first African American major-party presidential candidate will lose.

In the words of NBC News political director Chuck Todd: “Anytime race is THE topic du jour in the campaign, it’s a bad day for Obama. Period.”

I disagree.

Let’s review the three most racialized moments in the campaign.

First there was the tit-for-tat in late January, as the Democratic Party approached the South Carolina primary. Obama had won the Iowa caucuses, Clinton had won in New Hampshire and Nevada, and in the days before the Palmetto State’s voting, the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns traded accusations that each was bringing up race for political advantage. When Obama won a landslide victory, Bill Clinton dismissed it as Jesse Jackson redux, drawing significant criticism for the comparison. Was Obama damaged by all of this? Not hardly. Bill Clinton, however, has yet to recover.

Next there was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright remix of God bless America, in which Wright presented an image of an angry-at-America, angry-at-whites black man. The political and media punditry quickly sounded the death knell for Obama’s candidacy, and indeed Obama sank in the polls. The Gallup Daily Tracking Poll in mid-March showed him leading Hillary Clinton 50% to 44% before the Wright videos emerged, and five days later it was Clinton up 49% to 42%. But within days Obama was back in the lead, following his profoundly adult speech on race in Philadelphia.

Most recently we had the he said-he said showdown between John McCain’s and Obama’s campaigns, beginning with McCain’s “Celebrity” advertisement linking Obama with Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Some say that tying Obama to young, sexualized white women was an attempt to prime racial stereotypes about black men. For his part, Obama said that the McCain campaign was trying to tell everyone that Obama “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.” The Obama side later acknowledged it was a ham-handed attempt to highlight race without saying so explicitly.

The McCain camp immediately jumped on it, saying that it was the Obama camp who was playing the “race card.” Sensing an advantage, the McCain campaign has subsequently gone all-in with its advertising strategy, and has now released a web advertisement that declares “Hot chicks love Obama.” ABC News’ Jake Tapper put the count of white women at a minimum of 4. Subtle it ain’t.

Since the McCain-Obama back-and-forth began, the Gallup Daily Tracking poll has shown an interesting pattern. On July 30, when the Celebrity ad was released by the McCain campaign, Obama led McCain 45% to 44%. On each of the following two days the candidates tied at 44%, but nearly every day since Obama has gained ground—and as of Wednesday he led, 48% to 42%. If Obama was hurt by the racial dynamics, these numbers don’t show it.

So how to explain all of this?

I’ll offer two lines of argument.

1. Obama is hurt by race when it is a below-the-radar subtext, but he benefits when it is brought explicitly into the light of day. This is exactly what research in political psychology suggests: that only subtle, implicit racial messages work in today’s U.S. politics. The evidence suggests that most Americans don’t want to act upon their embedded racial prejudices, so when these biases become apparent to them, voters take intentional steps to act differently.

In South Carolina, Bill Clinton’s claims that Obama’s race helps him among black voters and Clinton’s reference to Jesse Jackson made race explicit, and subsequently Obama benefited. With Jeremiah Wright, Obama was hurt in polls when people simply saw Wright’s rants, but then Obama bounced back after his “More Perfect Union” speech directly addressed racial divisions. And in the aftermath of the salvos with the McCain camp two weeks ago, the news media are now giving closer scrutiny to the racial dynamics of the campaign. Such scrutiny, this pattern suggests, will help Obama.

2. There are two political groups that are determined that Obama will not suffer the same fate as Democratic Party nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988, when the George H. W. Bush campaign rode the infamous “Willie Horton” ad to victory.

The first are African American voters, whose support for Obama is at unprecedented levels for a Democrat. In response to the Wright flap, for example, media reports suggested that blacks often rallied to Obama’s side.

Second, the “swiftboat” experiences of John Kerry in 2004 has put the Obama campaign and supporters on high-alert against what it considers unfair criticisms, subtle or otherwise. The Obama campaign launched its site in June, “Fight the Smears,” and on Wednesday Kerry himself launched a site, “Truth Fights Back.” Both of these sites, ironically, draw upon Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign’s war-room approach of instant responses. These kinds of tactics ensure that the Obama campaign will weigh in quickly with its viewpoints, and can go on the offense whenever race comes up. That makes certain that they’re significant players in defining the debate.

These factors have made race a complex factor in this presidential campaign—which is as we might expect, given its deep, embedded, and often-contradictory positioning in American culture at large. The evidence simply doesn’t suggest that Obama is always hurt when race is part of the campaign. In fact, it appears to be exactly the opposite, so far.

Recent Comments

  1. Emily

    The American Prospect said that, “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.”

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