In a recent article, “The Color-Coded Campaign,” John Heilemann seems to be one of the very first journalists in the mainstream media to take a serious and detailed look at Senator Obama’s problems with overt and covert racist thinking and framing by white voters. He begins with a customary question as to why Obama is not way ahead of Senator McCain, and indeed below 50 percent of the voters in all national polls. After discussing the usual reasons given for his modest (or in some polls no) lead over Senator McCain, such as contentions he is too “effete,” “aloof,” “liberal,” or quick to change positions, he then moves to the more likely reason:
Where he’s lagging is among white voters, and with older ones in particular…. 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.”
He points to the coming troubles as the Republican attack machine cranks up:
And now he faces a Republican machine intent on blackening him further still. Add to that his exotic background (Kenyan father, Indonesian upbringing), his middle name, his urbanity and intellectualism, and the scale of the challenge ahead for him comes into sharp relief.
Most observers are very or fairly optimistic about his chances because of his campaign’s great efforts to get out the vote so far. But this effort, Heilemann argues, has some obvious limits. One veteran pollster
calculates that even if black turnout rises by 25 percent from 2004 (and Obama wins 92 percent), if Hispanic turnout holds steady (and Obama wins 60 percent of it, seven points better than John Kerry did), and the under-50 vote rises by 5 percent (and Obama wins half of young white voters), the Democrat would still need to win 40 percent of the [white voters], one point less than Kerry garnered and two points less than Al Gore did in 2000…. “To get there, he’s got to win roughly the same proportion of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents that all other Democrats get. . . . He can’t win it just by changing the electorate.”
Yet numerous exit polls in the Democratic primaries showed that 9-11 percent of Democrats who voted for Clinton admitted to strangers (pollsters) that “race” was important in their choice. Heilemann then quotes the savvy and pro-Democratic poll analyst John Judis who believes that in the general election that figure in November could be 15-20 percent of Democratic and leaning to Democratic independent white voters. Heilemann then raises the million dollar question that few have analyzed in detail in the media:
Polling on African-American candidates has often been unreliable in the past, overstating support for them, coughing up large blocs of alleged undecideds who actually have no intention of voting for a black contender but are too embarrassed to say so…. “[Surveys] in this race…ask the ballot question ‘Who are you voting for?’ and then ask the ‘Who are your neighbors voting for?’ question,” says a GOP operative, referring to a common pollsters’ tactic of seeing through obfuscation revolving around race. “And between the first and second question, you see a five-to-ten-point shift in the answers. . . . And in primaries too numerous to list, exit polls overpredicted Obama’s performance….
Heilemann then suggests that the Republicans are trying to highlight Senator Obama’s “otherness,” which was the main point about the Paris Hilton–Britney Spears commercial, which had the unstated premise that he was only a (lightweight) celebrity because of his race. In this way, his race can be highlighted for the white racial framing in the back of many/most white voters’ heads by McCain’s campaign without mentioning his race. When Senator Obama tried to highlight these and similar Republican tactics as trying to scare (white, of course) voters because he “doesn’t look like the other presidents on those dollar bills,” then the McCain campaign accused Obama of “playing the race card,” the conventional white response to being called out on racial issues publicly.
Heilemann argues that almost all analysts have viewed Obama’s response there as a mistake because it highlighted his racial identity for white voters. That is, anything that highlights his race plays into the white racial frame and thus likely alienates some/numerous white “moderate” or “independent” voters. Heilemann points to Senator Obama’s racial dilemma: He presumably cannot speak out against racism (he may have to?), but he cannot ignore the racist attacks either. And changing the subject does not easily work either:
What he needs is to find a way of talking not directly about race or racial politics but about his identity that at once elevates and grounds the conversation, that elucidates, soothes, inspires. That takes the air out of the attempts to make him seem foreign, not one of us.
But can he easily do this in a country where racist framing and action are still the foundation of the country–where most whites still operate, especially in private and backstage, out of a white racial frame in which the “dangerous black man” is at its center? As I have pointed out several times on this blog, there is plenty of social science data indicating this is the reality today. Why does the media, or the left blogosphere, not deal directly and openly with these issues of the white racist barriers standing in Senator Obama’s way? Can he overcome them as easily as many say?