After the Democratic Convention last week, Obama is again on a good trajectory to win in November. A CBS poll found Obama leading McCain by eight points, although other polls have a closer race. But Obama and the Democrats shouldn't get too cocky. The next two months will be fraught with peril for the Obama campaign, especially on the issues of race and gender.
One of the first racially charged issues Obama must deal with is Jeremiah Wright...again. Wright's new book will come out in October. No doubt, Wright will make television appearances to promote his book. The media will likely report his every word. Any time Wright is in the public eye, it puts the questions of race and patriotism front and center, which is bad for Obama. To make matters worse, the old tapes showing Wright's "God damn America" sermon could be played on a loop just weeks before Election Day. How will white swing voters react to that?
Another racially charged issue Obama will confront is affirmative action. This November, initiatives to ban affirmative action will be on the ballot in Colorado and Missouri. So affirmative action could be an important local issue in these two important swing states. These initiatives have passed in blue states like Michigan and California, so there is no reason to think they won't pass in Missouri and Colorado. Moreover, I wouldn't be surprised if conservative 527s, if not the McCain campaign itself, chooses to make affirmative action an issue in the general election.
In a debate over affirmative action Obama would be in a dangerous bind: maintain support for it and risk turning off white voters or hedge on the issue and perhaps dampen black enthusiasm for his candidacy. Any discussion about affirmative action will dovetail with questions about Obama's inexperience. Obama could easily be painted as the affirmative action candidate who is about to be promoted over the better qualified white candidate for a job, triggering a backlash from white voters who resent affirmative action.
McCain's decision to tap Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate has ensured that gender will also be an important issue in the election. Although many Democrats are eagerly anticipating the debate between Palin and Joe Biden, the debate could actually hurt more than it helps. If Biden comes off as condescending or bullying--Republican strategists will surely paint him as both no matter what--he risks incurring the ire of female voters. This is particularly worrisome in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton's candidacy, and the perceived sexism that upset so many women. In any case, the Obama campaign will need to tread lightly. Members of NARAL and Planned Parenthood might not be attracted to Palin, but women who are more socially moderate just might be tempted to elect the first female Vice President in American history. The Obama campaign had better not be accused of treating Palin unfairly.
Obama can still win of course. The overall environment still favors Democrats. And Obama has a chance to impress, and maybe pull ahead for good if he does well in the debates with John McCain. Navigating the complex issues of race and gender will have a lot to do with whether Obama is elected in November as well.
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