Thursday 8 January 2009

Why race wasn't decisive (and how it still mattered)

Marc Ambinder has a very interesting piece Race Over? in The Atlantic, with some new information about how the Obama campaign's argument for a post-racial candidacy involved "working methodically to woo white voters without alienating black ones—and vice versa".

It is well worth reading in full.

The key argument: Obama won 95 per cent of the black vote nationally without having to bring up race, which was crucial to winning enough white undecided voters who were "cross-pressured", leaning towards Obama on economics but towards McCain on cultural anxiety.

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.

Ambinder reports the Obama campaign paid more attention to African-American voters than most analysis has suggested.

Tom Joyner’s radio show reaches millions of African Americans each week; Obama, according to his campaign, appeared on it more than 15 times. Since white editors and reporters don’t listen to Joyner’s show, no one seems to have noticed.

The Obama campaign outpolled Gore and Kerry in every state the Democrats needed. Conclusion: race didn't matter. The piece suggests would be more accurate to say it wasn't decisive, according to research from campaign pollster Cornell Belcher.

In 1992, Belcher noted, 85 percent of voters who said the economy was bad broke for Bill Clinton. In 2008, in a verifiably worse economic climate, only 66 percent of voters who said the economy was bad voted for Barack Obama. “The economy is clearly not the only story. I could argue that the economy wasn’t as big an impact this time around as in 1992,” Belcher told me. “You can’t look at that swath of hard-red counties that actually grew even redder and say that we are post-racial.”

It is little surprise that race still matters, among white and black voters. But it was not the wedge issue it has been before. Being post-racial enough to elect an exceptional candidate who happens to be black is more than a start.

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