The recently released AP-Yahoo News poll is further evidence that race, or rather, America's convoluted reaction to race, presents a reality for Barack Obama and his campaign that is beginning to come into focus. This race is far closer than it should be and those who try to downplay the role of race to this point have their heads stuck in the sand. Obama will pay a "Black tax" in November that may cost him the presidency.
Obama should be walking away with this election. He has been a political phenomenon since bursting onto the national scene at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. No politician in this country has received the volume of favorable coverage as Obama. He's running against an incredibly unpopular Republican Party, whose leader -- President Bush -- has operated under historically high disapproval ratings for most of his second term. The party's standard bearer in the upcoming election -- John McCain -- has so badly contorted himself to curry the approval of his party's right wing that he is now unrecognizable to moderates and independents that fueled his rise to presidential contender status nearly a decade ago and saved him from ruin during the Republican presidential nomination fight. And, oh, by the way, McCain will be 72 by the time he's inaugurated, should he win in November. This nation is not kind to the elderly, so McCain is also facing a sub-rosa ageism.
Some analysts have pointed to McCain's resiliency, his "game changing" choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, and Obama's relative inexperience as among the reasons why this race is as close as it is. These are all valid and legitimate reasons for why the race is as close as it is, but they don't tell the whole story. Any analysis of the contest that does not prominently include the sticky wicket of racism is incomplete.
The poll, however, shows why McCain's resiliency, Palin, and Obama's inexperience may not matter in November: 40 percent of all Whites surveyed admitted to holding negative views of African Americans (one can reasonably infer that some who hold such views didn't admit so to the pollster). This number may help explain why Obama is still having trouble winning over some disaffected Hilary Clinton supporters and why independent voters have not come around as expected. A particularly worrisome finding is that there was not even a majority of self-identified White Democrats who viewed African Americans as friendly, law-abiding, good neighbors, dependable, or hardworking. Self-identified White Republicans had consistently harsher views of African Americans than all Whites surveyed, White independents, or White Democrats. The bottom line finding is the suggestion that Obama's support would be six percentage points higher if there were no White racial prejudice.
Obama has continually downplayed race and any impact it can have on his campaign. Perhaps this is for public consumption while his private position is more closely aligned with reality. Be that as it may, the poll suggests that Obama won't lose much by speaking more authoritatively on the possibility that he could be denied the presidency just because he's Black. Those inclined to not support him because he's "uppity" or an elitist, or other racial code words, won't come around no matter how much he runs away from race.
Some have suggested that losing six points by virtue of being Black won't be enough to keep Obama from winning. I say get you head out of the sand and look at the polls. The four closest battleground states -- Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida -- are all within the margin of error, according to a poll average conducted by RealClearPolitics. That's certainly enough to allow the six point "Black tax" that Obama will pay to move at least a few of those states to McCain. That could be enough to cost Obama the election.
Racial prejudice and fear of the unknown has long led people to vote against their self-interest. Indeed, part of the Republicans' ability to get poor and working-class voters to support the party despite its fealty to corporate interests at the expense of those on the low end of the income spectrum is largely attributable to people voting against their self-interest. Don't expect these extraordinary times to miraculously bring clarity to some voters. Old habits are hard to break.
Michael K. Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and conducts research on race and politics. He blogs at: www.MichaelFauntroy.com
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