Ever since polls from ABC and CBS News showed Barack Obama trailing Hillary Clinton among black Democrats when asked about their preference for the 2008 presidential nomination, pundits have speculated about the why. Much of that speculation centers on Obama and his racial identity. Can Obama "appeal to blacks ?" How does he "define and approach race?" Are black voters responding to the details of "his unconventional biography" or simply the sense that he seems "culturally kind of white?" Kaus & Wrightvia Kaus ). This speculation largely dismisses simpler explanations for the poll results that strike me as more powerful: Obama does not yet enjoy Clinton's name recognition. More important, Hillary Clinton begins not only with strong popularity of her own among black Democrats, but also the perception that she -- unlike Obama -- has "the right experience" to be president.
In my post on the CBS News poll, I discussed the Clinton and Obama favorable ratings among registered Democratic primary voters, pointing out that despite the recent coverage, large numbers of Democratic primary voters do not yet know Barack Obama well enough to rate him. Some readers wondered how those favorable ratings compared by race, and I did to, so I emailed the CBS Polling Director Kathy Frankovic, and she graciously provided the following tabulations:
The results are essentially the same for both white and black Democratic primary voters: More than half either say they "do not know enough" about Obama to rate him or say they are undecided. Obama's favorable rating among blacks (43%) is statistically indistinguishable from his rating from whites (41%), his unfavorable rating among whites. His unfavorable rating is tiny (4%) among white Democrats, virtually non-existent (1%) among blacks.
Clinton, on the other hand, receives a higher favorable among black Democrats (66%) than among whites (56%). Her unfavorable rating from black Democrats (4%) is less than a third of her negative marks from white Democrats (15%).
The CBS survey also has more specific questions about both Obama and Clinton, one of which highlights a key Clinton advantage: When asked if "Hillary Rodham Clinton has the right kind of experience to be a good president," 83% of Democratic primary voters say she does, 10% say she does not, and 7% are unsure.
When asked the same question about Obama, 39% of Democratic primary voters are unsure -- roughly the same number that say they do not know him well enough to rate him. But those willing to rate him are divided; 34% of the Democratic primary voters say he has the right experience, 27% say he does not.
Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to ask for these results by race, but it does not seem much of a stretch to conclude that issues of recognition and perceived experience -- rather than racial identity -- explain more of the current standings than perceptions of Obama's racial identity.**
Of course, it is always worth the caveat that we have a long, long way to go. Obama and other candidates will gain recognition, perceptions of them will likely change, as will the results of horse race polls.
Also, two technical notes about these findings: CBS News deliberately "over-sampled" African Americans to obtain an adequate sample size, but then weighted the sample of adults to reflect the actual racial composition of the U.S. adult population. Also -- unique among the national public polls of late -- CBS screened not just for Democratic identifiers but for Democrats who said they typically vote in Democratic primaries or caucuses.