CHICAGOLAND -- On a pleasant Sunday afternoon in late August in the suburbs, I approached a handful of folks who were attending a backyard barbecue and asked if I could chat with them for a few minutes about the presidential contest.
It so happened that all of them were women. Two of them were retired secretaries, one a lawyer, one a teacher. There was only one Republican (the lawyer), and four Democrats. All five were white. One was a Catholic nun.
Illinois is a "blue" state, so the fact that there were more Democrats in the mix than Republicans was not surprising. In fact, Illinois has not voted for a Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan's landslide reelection in 1984. Of course, Illinois is also Obamas' home state.
One of the older women supported Hillary in the primaries, but was excited and very positive now towards Obama. She closely follows politics. She used to respect McCain, as a "straight shooter" who sometimes stood up to his own party. Now, she says he has "sold out" to the conservative Republican base in order to get the nomination.
Another woman, a teacher, spontaneously remarked that she "didn't like McCain's wife." In fact, among the Democrats I spoke to, the only positive remarks about McCain came in the form of damning with faint praise. "Not as extreme as other Republicans," "used to be a moderate and a maverick," or "has some moderate views."
There was unanimous, almost dutiful, respect for McCain's patriotism and military service, including his time as a POW 40 years ago, but no one thought that that qualified him to be president.
Also, save for the lone Republican in the group, all of the others worried about McCain's aggressive militarism, combined with his reputation for having a hot temper. This could be a dangerous mix, several suggested.
All were concerned about McCain's age, to varying degrees. The older people seemed more worried about McCain's age than the younger folks did.
They were all also worried about Obama's "inexperience" and "lack of record." This was true even for those who were otherwise very favorable towards Obama. So, it seems that neither candidate can win on this score! The issue of "inexperienced vs. old" may be a wash, after all is said and done.
At times, the raves about Obama made it sound like a political commercial. He is "intelligent", "creative", "inspiring". He has "good character", "good values", "good policy ideas". He has a "nice family".
Criticisms included worries that Obama might be "over promising" on what he can deliver and is a bit vague as to how he would accomplish his campaign pledges, such as financing universal health care. But, he can worry about those specifics AFTER getting elected, of course, first things first. That seemed to be the overall attitude among the Obama supporters.
One or two (including, unsurprisingly, the Catholic nun) opposed Obama's position on abortion, but not enough to change their overall support for him.
I was surprised that even the self-identified Republican had strong praise for Obama: "good judgment, smart, helpful for American standing in the world, and good for race relations." This person also worried about McCain's temper, but said that she will "still probably vote for McCain", despite her ringing praise of Obama personally, because of McCain's "general moderate policy views, including support of 'limited' government."
I asked this Republican, 41 yr old attorney with 3 small children, her take on McCain's attitude toward foreign policy. In contrast to the Democrats I spoke to, she saw no problem with McCain's militarism, or that of the neoconservatives. She did not worry about the possibility of a draft. She felt, not unlike McCain, that the Iraq War was "mismanaged," but that there was no bad intent, nor any type of "conspiracy" of the Bush administration to lead us in to war.
However, she added "I don't read much about it. I'm not obsessed with politics."
Remember the teacher who "didn't like McCain's wife"? She was the only one I spoke to that day who said, "Yes, race is a factor. White males have monopolized power for too long. I think it will be good to have an African American president."
The rest of the folks I talked too (all white) didn't want to say that race "was a factor" in their decision as to whom to support for president. At the same time, they seemed to consider Obama's race as a positive, or as one characterized it, his "diversity." Although no one put it in this way, perhaps some of them, already loyal Democrats inclined to support their party nominee, looked at Obama's ethnicity as a "bonus", or as another reason to enthusiastically support him.
At the same time, some of them worried about the effects of racial prejudice against Obama in the general election. If Obama does not prevail in November, I am sure that some of his enthusiastic supporters will feel, perhaps with some justification, that racism, subtle and hidden, or even loud and overt, was indeed a factor. The sensitive issue of race is another reason why this election will have serious ramifications in the world, in the U.S., and even in Flossmoor, Illinois.