McCain’s Hidden Advantage

McCain’s Hidden Advantage

No matter what Obama does or what issue he takes, many voters may vote purely on demographic and racial terms.

By Ellis Cose

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From the magazine issue dated May 5, 2008

If there was any surprise in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary, it was that recent events had virtually no effect on the result. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton could have stayed home for the past month and a half and the outcome would have been essentially the same. Women and older voters, for the

most part, would have come out for Clinton; blacks, young people and the highly educated elite would have backed Obama. And Clinton would have ended up with a decisive victory unlikely to halt her opponent’s march toward the nomination.

That may be astonishing to those who expected the querulous campaign and the candidates’ missteps—Clinton’s tale of evading snipers in Bosnia and Obama’s embarrassing description of “bitter” voters—to alter the dynamic of the race. Even the widely criticized remarks of Obama’s former pastor (who suggested, among other things, that American policy may have been partially responsible for the September 11 attack) had little measurable impact on voter behavior. As far as Gallup can tell, the effect of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.’s inflammatory language “died after a couple of days,” said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll.

This is good news for Obama—at least in the short term—because it means that there is little he can do to screw things up. If the campaign is largely a matter of demographics, it will be virtually impossible for Clinton to get 70 percent of all remaining delegates—which is what Obama campaign manager David Plouffe believes she will need in order to deny his man the nomination.

But what is good for Obama now might be fatal later. Demographics don’t necessarily favor him, or any Democrat, in the general election. Regardless of who wins the Democratic nom-ination, racially polarized voting patterns will remain a reality, argues Vincent Hutchings, associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. If voters behave this year as they have in the recent past, upwards of 55 percent of whites will vote for the Republican candidate and somewhere upwards of 85 percent of blacks will vote for the Democrat. In 2000, Al Gore won an estimated 92 percent of the black votes. Hutchings doubts Obama could do any better (though he may be able to get more blacks and also more young people to actually turn out to vote).

The unknown factor with Obama is how his race will affect the vote overall. Some 18 percent of voters in the Pennsylvania primary told pollsters that race was an important factor in deciding their vote. And of the 12 percent of whites who said race mattered, three fourths voted for Clinton. Obama stands to lose a substantial share of those votes in the general election. In an analysis of the Pennsylvania results, Gary Langer, ABC’s director of polling, points out that only 54 percent of those white Democrats who said race was important would support Obama instead of John McCain. The rest said they would either vote for McCain—or not at all. Race, Langer notes, operated in a fundamentally different way than gender. Voters who said the gender of the candidate was important seemed much less likely to choose their gender preference over their party.

Though the percentage of voters who say race is important is relatively small, those voters (whose numbers may well be understated in the polls) could be the margin of victory in a close election—especially since the percentage will likely be higher in the general election than in the Democratic primary. The American electorate, taken as a whole, is not as racially liberal as Democratic primary voters.

It is not just Obama’s race that matters, but also his racial associations. “White Americans are, on balance, racially moderate to conservative,” notes Hutchings. To the extent Obama appears to be something other than that, he loses white votes. That reality makes it all but inevitable that Republican strategists will attempt to resurrect the controversy surrounding Obama’s former pastor as a way of removing Obama from the American mainstream and alienating him from those whites (working class and older voters among them) who have not been particularly enthusiastic about his candidacy to begin with.

Ed Sarpolus, a pollster who works for the Michigan Educational Association, says he believes Obama’s difficulties with working-class whites may have little to do with race. “I don’t think we are at a point where we can measure the racial impact,” he says. The more pressing potential issue, as Sarpolus sees it, is that Obama lacks a compelling “working-class message.”

At this stage, despite increased voter turnout, most Americans are not paying much attention to political messages. The average voter is simply “not tuned in to primaries,” observes Hutchings. Also, as Clinton and Obama both acknowledge, their messages are not so very different. Given that, it’s hardly remarkable that demographics are paramount. Other than the candidates’ posturing, squabbling and supposed gaffes, there is little else for even serious-minded voters to focus on.

That will not be so in the fall. At that point (whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be), voters will face a choice between fundamentally different approaches to some of the most difficult challenges, both domestic and international, that America has faced in a generation. That election is too important to be decided primarily on the basis of (inherently superficial) demographic factors—not that they will ever cease to matter. “Demographics are always a backdrop in American politics,” Hutchings points out. But one thing that has made this season so exciting is the possibility of change. For even as the primaries have confirmed the truth of Hutchings’s observation, they have also fueled the hope that we are capable of embracing a not-so-distant future where that need not be the case. To lose that hope would be tragic, not just for Obama, but for America.