NY Times Campaign Stops: Does Race Really Matter?

NY Times Campaign Stops

Does Race Really Matter?

Arguments about race and the 2008 election play out on two levels: one, the notion that many white voters are “closet racists” and will not vote for a black man and two, that public opinion polling cannot be trusted because white voters are afraid to reveal their prejudices.

To the first point, it is incontrovertible that some whites will not vote for Barack Obama. We’ve come far as a nation; but we haven’t come all the way. According to a recent Associated Press-Yahoo News poll, one-third of all white Democrats and independents have used a negative word to describe African-Americans, and racial antagonism may be costing Mr. Obama as much as six points in the polls.

However, these numbers are a bit suspect. The poll tested all Americans, not just voters and simply because someone has a partially negative view of African-Americans, it doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t vote for Barack Obama. The negative stereotypes that some white voters hold toward African-Americans may not necessarily have an impact on the way they think of Mr. Obama, particularly if he doesn’t seem to fit those preconceived notions. And of course, many whites who would not vote for Barack Obama because he is African-American are unlikely to vote for any Democratic presidential candidate.

In the end, we don’t know how the race factor will play out on Election Day. No pollster can look into the soul of a voter; and the verdict cast in the voting booth is a highly personal decision where a whole series of political and social factors have an impact on the final choice. But examining what we do know about voting patterns suggests that fears of racial animus determining the presidential election are wildly overstated. Race may play a factor on Election Day; but then again it may not. And even if it does, it may provide more, not less benefit to Barack Obama.


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