01/07/2009 03:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ambinder: Race Over?

Not to be missed: My colleague Marc Ambinder has an article in the latest issue of The Atlantic on how the Obama campaign "worked methodically to woo white voters without alienating black ones--and vice versa."   Ambinder, whose sources in Obamaland were strong, draws heavily on conversations with Cornell Belcher, "a top Obama pollster who had conducted some of the campaign's earliest research on race."

The short version is that Obama gained sufficient credibility and support among African-American voters to allow his campaign to focus later in the campaign on wooing uncertain white voters, many of whom demonstrated what Belcher describes as "racial aversion." The eventual lopsided margin among black voters, Ambinder writes,

also highlights what Obama did not have to do: he did not have to pander to black leaders; he did not have to target specific messages at the black community with the attendant risk of exacerbating economic tension between blacks and whites. He did not have to bring up race. And that was key, because Belcher's polling confirmed that culturally anxious whites were willing to vote for a black candidate so long as they did not meditate on the candidate's blackness. Obama was able to credential himself as an African American without engaging in overt racial politics. Or, rather, the black community credentialed Obama without his resorting to racial politicking, something that white Democratic candidates had to do.

The article -- well worth reading in full -- has more details on how Belcher measured "racial aversion" and on the conclusions he drew from the data.

Ambinder also reports on Belcher's candor, back in September, about how race might limit Obama's support:

In the fall, when some Obama advisers began predicting a landslide, Belcher would have none of it. "No one with any real post-civil-rights understanding of our national political contours could with a straight face predicate a Democratic national landslide," he told me in September.

It's worth contrasting that statement with the post-election assessments of many political scientists. They found Obama's ultimate margin "not surprising" since it roughly matched what statistical models based mostly on "fundamental factors" (such as perceptions of the economy and the Bush administration) had predicted (for more details, see comments by Larry Bartels in the Brookings post-election roundtable or the concise summary, with ample links, by John Sides).

But Belcher's words of caution remind me of a comment from one of John Sides' readers in reaction to Sides argument that "the fundamentals" mattered more than the campaigns:

[T]he fact that Obama--as a black man--was able to pull within the margin of a usual victory speaks to the ability of his campaign skills. Again, coming from a sociological perspective, race is so incredibly salient in so many aspects of our lives as Americans, it is astounding that so many Americans were willing to put those sentiments aside and vote for a black man. I suspect that this is what you might mean by "It may be that the campaign helped move voters in line with the outcome that the fundamentals predict" -- but I think that understates how amazing Obama's accomplishment to be the first African American President really is.

See the same link for Sides' reply.

I can't help but thinking that if the election had turned out differently, we might have heard a chorus of "I told you so's" from a different set of political scientists reminding us of the lessons of 30 or 40 years of academic opinion research on how racial attitudes shape political preferences. It didn't happen that way, and Ambinder's piece helps explain why.

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