Racing against the race factor

This week, there has been considerable back-and-forth over the race factor in the presidential campaign:  i.e., whether some voters (even Democratic voters) will refuse to vote for a black candidate.

Everyone accepts the fact that there are racists out there. Next you have to ask how many of the racists won’t vote, and how many would never vote for a Democrat under any circumstances. The deep south, for example, is already solidly Republican.

Moreover, white racism will be offset, to some extent, by black voters who are very enthusiastic about Obama’s candidacy. African Americans may turn out to the polls in larger numbers than they have in past elections, and vote overwhelmingly Democrat.

In any event, researchers are searching for a way to measure the impact of the race factor. John Judis discusses one such effort, which I will summarize in the form of a table:

demographic group
– or –
statement testing views on race
% of white Democrats who agree with statement % who will vote for Obama
white Democrats 71%
white Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton 59%
“Italians, Irish, Jews and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up; blacks should do the same without special favors.” 42% 61%
“It’s really a matter of some people just not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could just be as well off as whites.” 28% 56%
“Generations of slavery have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.” 28% disagree 61%

It’s hard for me to believe that 28% of respondents disagreed with that last statement, but anyhow ….

What emerges from the data is this:  respondents who have less progressive views on race are less likely to vote for Barack Obama. The first row, showing that 71% of white Democrats support Obama, functions as our baseline. The bottom three rows are all significantly lower than the baseline percentage.

It’s a kind of “Well, duh!” result — it shows only what you would expect to find.

The data also suggests a correlation between what I’m calling less progressive views on race and support for Hillary Clinton during the primaries. (Compare row one, 71%, with row two, 59%. Row two jibes instead with the next three rows — 61%, 56%, 61%.)

Again I say, “Well, duh!” At least in the Appalachian region, there was clear evidence that a significant percentage of white Democrats preferred Hillary in part due to racism.

The big worry among Obama supporters is the so-called Bradley Effect, in which a disproportionate number of voters tell pollsters that they are seriously considering the black candidate (perhaps because they don’t want to reveal their racism; perhaps because they’re not consciously aware of their own racism), but ultimately choose the white candidate in the privacy of the voting booth. Some commentators argue that the Bradley Effect is dead, but I’m inclined to agree with Judis’s conclusion:

I have a lingering suspicion that a Bradley Effect could show up in some of these swing states where the votes of white ethnic Democrats are going to make the difference. I think if you were an Obama supporter, you would want him to be at 50 percent or more in the polls on the eve of the election. If he is ahead 48 to 47 percent with a lot of undecideds, I would worry.

If that’s right, what can Obama do about it? Organize, organize, organize. He can race against the race factor by increasing registration among black people and youth, and by increasing the percentage of his supporters who actually turn out to vote. And that’s precisely what Obama is doing.

Nate Silver has been visiting states to evaluate the candidates’ ground games. He finds that Obama is better organized than McCain in states like Colorado and New Mexico. (Both are potential “swing” states.) Here’s what Silver has to say about New Mexico:

The New Mexico Obama field operation is top notch. From the state field director down through the RFDs and FOs (regional field directors and field organizers), this is a motivated, deeply talented bench. Without going into specifics, this is an A-team. …

John Kerry came into the state and didn’t do much [to reach Hispanic voters] outside Albuquerque. This time, Barack Obama seems to have learned that lesson. His outreach to Native groups and Hispanic communities is clearly better than Kerry’s, though we’re still hearing that in some areas that outreach can be improved.

Obama’s Campaign for Change has 36 offices open in the state. …

The bottom line in New Mexico is that if an accurate poll has New Mexico tied on election day, Obama would probably win due to ground game. The Land of Enchantment is lopsided.

Let’s face it:  Obama knows that John McCain starts with a hidden advantage attributable to racism. Obama knew it even before he announced his candidacy. To compensate, Obama is running the best-organized campaign of any Democrat in living memory. He has to.

Here’s how we need to think about the scenario:

  1. The day before the election, Obama has a narrow, 48%-47% lead in the polls.
  2. Factor in the Bradley Effect. Now we have a narrow, 48%-47% lead for McCain.
  3. Factor in Obama’s ground game advantage. Now the results bounce back:  48%-47% for Obama — maybe 49%-46% in a state like New Mexico, where Obama’s organizational advantage is massive.

Let’s not fret over the race factor, because Obama has taken steps to neutralize it.


p.s. One intriguing possibility is that McCain will win the popular vote, while Obama will win the presidency based on electoral college results. It’s a very real possibility, if racism and other factors increase McCain’s margin of victory in traditionally Republican states, while swing states tilt toward Obama. It would be a return to the Bush/Gore election in 2000 — except the shoe will be on the other foot (i.e., the Democratic candidate will benefit instead of the Republican candidate).


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bridgett
    Sep 21, 2008 @ 21:43:46

    The poll–was it taken just of Democratic or otherwise liberal voters? Because that 28% should not surprise you if it was a blind taste test, so to speak.


  2. Stephen
    Sep 22, 2008 @ 08:42:15

    I can’t figure out exactly who the questions were directed to. Judis says the respondents were white Democrats, but it isn’t immediately clear from the original article.

    Regardless, 28% is an enormous number, even if it was a survey of the whole adult population. The question isn’t asking about a controversial policy, like affirmative action. It’s just asking whether generations of slavery have created persistent obstacles for black success. That strikes me as a completely uncontroversial idea.

    So yes, I’m surprised. Even though I’m well familiar with the less-than-admirable side of human nature: e.g., our inability to see things from someone else’s perspective. (Or our unwillingness even to make the effort.)


  3. Zayna
    Sep 22, 2008 @ 17:41:17

    Forgive me, I’m unclear on a minor detail.

    In your chart, one column heading read “% of white Democrats who agree with statement” and then in the last row you put in “28% disagree”.

    Does that mean 72% agreed and if so, why not just put that?

    Or, as I’m guessing, is it more complicated than that? Were there more variables?

    I’m not trying to be a pain. Just trying to educate myself and understand this stuff better.


  4. Stephen
    Sep 22, 2008 @ 18:09:23

    Hi, Zayna.

    The survey is trying to isolate people who have less than progressive views on race issues. With respect to the first two statements, if you agree, you’re in the not-very-progressive camp.

    On the third statement, respondents who disagree are in the not-very-progressive camp. Which doesn’t work very well if, like me, you’re trying to lay out the data in the form of a table!

    That’s why the perspective flips in the last row. Nonetheless, all three rows indicate how many non-progressives intend to vote for Barack Obama.

    I hope that explanation is clear. I don’t mind answering questions, so please don’t hesitate to ask. 🙂


  5. Zayna
    Sep 23, 2008 @ 12:37:14

    Thanks Stephen. Yep, now I get it.

    And I concur that it’s hard to believe that almost 30% of people polled could disagree with that last statement.

    When you consider that much of North American society was still segregated in the 60’s…it’s easy to understand how the deep wounds of slavery have yet to be even close to healed.

    I’m beginning to have a clearer picture of why this election is so important and why the whole world should care.

    Thanks for enlightening me. 🙂


  6. 49erDweet
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 10:04:24

    I shall stub my toe here, possibly, but permit me to opine the upcoming US presidential election may be less about “race” than most observers might like to think, imo. Speaking as a conservative – and I’m far from being alone on this – for many years we’ve been anxious to find a candidate of color or gender [or both] whom we can support on an ideology basis. Hence our initial support in 2001 for the political development of Condi Rice. Alas, in her case that did not occur. Stephen, I think that attitude, never-the-less, could be considered a “progressive view on race”.

    I do have a negative view of “identity politics”. Its a sham and dishonest, in my view. On this point I agree with no less than Thomas Sowell.

    As to the numbers of conservatives sharing the views I cite above[?], I have no idea. Its just that among those with whom I communicate its an almost universal opinion.

    Your survey was from among white democrats. I hold on that basis it has less value as to the overall mindset of the electorate. I think it probably was taken from among registered dems in some of the eastern and mid-west industrial states. Out here in the west race is simply not very important in the overall scheme of things.

    I regretfully agree there are those who will vote against – and for – Senator Obama based solely on race. That is not acceptable, imo, nor should it be considered good citizenship. But since I can’t have my way we must accept what we receive. Imperfection along with freedom of choice. It just goes with the territory.

    A couple of other points, if I may. Before the deep south was solidly “republican” it was even more solidly “democrat”. With even stronger prejudices – and violence – against persons of color. It is a culture thing, and in the last 50 years has greatly improved. But it is still, admittedly, not acceptable today. Just as in Canada, one may still find prejudice in almost any village, town or city. Just underneath the surface.

    And in the US segregation began rolling back in the very early 50’s, not 60’s. By the time the noted court decisions came down later much of the pre-work had been accomplished. It was brought on, I believe – since I lived through it – by a citizenry totally ashamed of our nation’s record during WWII vis-a-vis the Japanese displacement camps and our treatment of black and nisei military units. The military “de-segregated” in the late 40’s, and every city near a military base began to re-learn race relations. It was traumatic, possibly, but essential – imo.

    Best wishes on October 14, btw. Cheers


  7. Stephen
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 14:59:13

    Hi, 49er:
    I didn’t mean to express an opinion on whether Republicans are less progressive than Democrats on matters of race. I did mention the deep south, for obvious historical reasons. But I also mentioned the racism of supporters of Hillary Clinton in the Appalachian region.

    At one time, Colin Powell looked like an ideal presidential candidate for the Republicans. So I agree, large numbers of Republicans would consider supporting a black candidate.

    My view on identity politics is that I don’t mind when it’s positive in motivation, but I disapprove when it takes a negative turn. That is, it doesn’t bother me if black voters support Obama because they’re proud to have the opportunity to vote for a capable black candidate. Likewise, it didn’t bother me to see women support Hillary Clinton because they were proud to have the option of a capable woman candidate.

    But I disapprove if whites vote against the black candidate purely because they think blacks are inherently inferior to whites.

    Finally: thanks for that interesting bit of history about desegregated military bases in the late 40s. However, I don’t think it detracts from Zayna’s point, that slavery and discrimination were still live issues
    within the lifetime of many voters. Condi Rice was talking just the other day about the real, physical dangers that existed in her community when she was a child.

    So the systemic disadvantages faced by African-Americans can’t be relegated to the distant past. (And it isn’t clear that you meant to say any such thing.)


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