The race factor and the Obama effect

In today's New York Times, we are treated to the umpteenth article about the so-called "Bradley effect": The possibility that some voters are telling pollsters that they plan to vote for Obama, but who really won't because of racial prejudice.

This particular article, by Adam Nagourney and entitled "In Voting Booth, Race May Play a Bigger Role," is a good example of just how much some reporters and editors are stretching to keep the race story alive (I blogged yesterday about a blatant attempt by CNN to actually stir up racism by inviting watchers to email about why they wouldn't vote for a Black man.)

The Nagourney article does not actually cite any statistics, studies, or other data to back up its contention that race may play a role in the election. Instead, the article quotes three individuals involved in electoral politics on various sides of the issue. That makes this particular piece a made-up job, based on no new facts nor even new insights. (The same can be said for several other articles on the same theme in today's Times, all of which mostly deal with overt rather than covert racism; the paper runs a large photo of a southern racist who, referring to Obama's mixed heritage, cites the Bible against creating "other breeds.")

But I was particularly struck by a quote in Nagourney's piece from Harold Ickes, who was a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign:

“If he were white, this would be a blowout,” Mr. Ickes said. “I think the country has come a long, long, long way since the 1960s. I think everybody would agree with that. But if you talk to people in certain states, they will say there are impulses that do not benefit Barack Obama because of the color of his skin.”

I don't deny that some people won't vote for Obama because he is Black, and many of them say so openly--thus disqualifying them, by definition, as part of the Bradley effect, which refers to those whose alleged racism is hidden rather than overt. But is it true that if Obama were white this would be a "blowout"? I don't think so, and here I would like to indulge in some brief speculations of my own (note that I am clearly labeling them as speculations, which articles like Nagourney's fail to do.)

First of all, the latest poll numbers (ie the new CBS/New York Times poll) give Obama a 14 point lead over McCain, and Obama is leading by statistically significant margins in most of the swing states. If that is not already a blowout, I don't know what is. Second, I would argue that Obama is doing as well as he is not despite his being Black, but because of it. To put it more precisely, Obama is winning because of who he is. Can anyone name a Democratic Party politician who has Obama's charisma, his life experiences, his eloquence and passion, even his intelligence? Although I disagree with Obama on a number of political issues, and have said so repeatedly on this blog, there is no one on the political scene who comes close to matching Obama's appeal. Where does that appeal come from?

If anyone has not read Obama's book, "Dreams From My Father," they should do so--or rather, they should listen to Obama read it on CD, even if that version is abridged, or download the Audible version. Doing so will make clear the complex family background and life experiences that make Obama who he is, and also make clear that magically changing the color of Obama's skin would not make him more "electable." It would make him less so, because it necessarily would give him a different life than the one he has had.

So here is my little bit of punditry about race and the "Bradley effect": I think that Americans are going to elect Barack Obama president by a resounding margin not despite the fact that he is Black, but because of it. They will vote for him because he has a dramatically different story than that of the politicians they have voted for in the past, a story that resonates with authenticity and purpose. They will vote for him because they know by doing so they are bringing out the best in America rather than the worst; they will vote for him because of the thrill that it will bring them to thumb their noses at 400 years of history and show that they are not bound by its shackles; they will do so because they know that the whole world is watching and that billions of people on this planet will be proud of what they do on November 4.

Let's call it the Obama effect.

More on the Obama effect and "blackness." From "reg," a regular blogger on Marc Cooper's site, in response to my post above--a very eloquent and insightful analysis I would urge you to read.

Economy trumps race? So reports Truthdig's Bill Boyarsky from Ohio, in a very interesting piece.

The end of demographics? Slate examines the outdated use of demographic categories to predict voter behavior, using women as the example.

Update (October 18): The Hillary effect (and it's not helping McCain.)

Post a Comment


Anonymous said…
Professor Balter, were you a member or are you still a member of the SDS? Just curious.
Michael Balter said…
Why yes, Anonymous, I was a proud member of the SDS at UCLA 40 years ago when we fought to end the war in Vietnam. I am not a member of the new SDS, which was reformed several years ago.

Thanks for asking, and next time why don't you tell us who you are rather than posting anonymously?
Richard Parker said…
Who Obama is is not very important. Nor is whether he is black, white, or khaki.

What is important is what he will, or will not, be able to do about America when he gets into office.

The money from under the mattress has been stolen by Goldman Sachs & Co, so there will be no funds available for health care, new real jobs, refurbished infrastructure, or anything else that might really revive America.

Scary time to come.
Michael Balter said…
Richard, there is no doubt that the economy is driving a lot of voters towards Obama, but not because they have any serious reason to think his economic plan is superior to McCain's. Obama does not have the magic bullet, and no one can be sure what it will take to turn things around. Rather, voters are more confident that whatever Obama does he will not favor the rich over the poor and middle class; and they are confident about that because of who Obama is, going back to my main point.
Richard Parker said…
Obama may represent a lot of good things, but unless he can actually do anything with that, he's going to be a patsy for the right wing for everything that goes wrong in the next four years.

It astonishes me that America still has two very right-wing parties, ever since the comfortable years, and the mess both of them have made since.

What does Obama want to do in Afghanistan, and why does it matter?

All that shows is that he grew up with a basic belief in American exceptionalism, which is no longer good currency.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Mike, your comments on Marc Cooper's blog turned me onto what you have to say. I can tell you're extremely tolerant of those who disagree with you, and would never stoop to an ad hominem attack.

I agree with your statement that most Americans are going to vote for him because he is black, which paradoxically also explains the Bradley Effect. That is, many white Americans feel a profound sense of racial guilt, and a consequent need for absolution of this guilt. And if they still have doubts about the black candidate, they feel both fearful and guilty about expressing them.

So yes, white guilt and political correctness rule the day. Dog bites man.

However, since you have me pegged as a racist, I thought you might be interested in why such a person might actually vote for Obama: because he happens to be marginally better on a whole host of issues, and because he seems somewhat more level-headed, energetic, likable and intelligent than the white guy running. You know, content of character type stuff.

I remain concerned that the mainstream media will be unwilling or afraid to criticize him or will demonize the often uncivil dissent that all Presidents are and ought to be subjected to. But my fears are overridden by the welcome hope that whites will be less likely to acquiese to future guilt tripping by race hustlers and whiners once they've elected a black President.
Anonymous said…
MB, there was a recent note in *Science* mag about this effect. As usual for the mag there was some back and forth about the bottom line ("more study is needed").
What I remember was, although there are not that many races with African-Americans to average over, the observable difference was small (~1 point). There was a competing claim showing a much larger difference, but IIRC it was not as solid.
Michael Balter said…
Thanks for reminding me about that Science piece, by my colleague Jennizer Couzin. I have provided the link here (hope it works) for those who have online access to Science; for those who don't, I will try to figure out some way to post it.;322/5899/180?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&andorexacttitle=or&andorexacttitleabs=or&fulltext=Bradley+effect&andorexactfulltext=phrase&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=relevance&fdate=7/1/1880&tdate=10/31/2008&resourcetype=HWCIT,HWELTR
Michael Balter said…

Here's that link in more manageable form.
Anonymous said…
I've got to hand it to you guys, you former SDSers. You certainly learned how to obfuscate, sow confusion to the nth degree, and get jobs in academia.

1) As you very well know, SDS was founded in 1962, long before Viet Nam became an issue to anyone. Neither Viet Nam nor any political party is mentioned in the Port Huron Statement. Its more accurate to say that the SDS EXPLOITED the Viet Nam war, just as it exploited racial tension, to further a bizarre totalitarian dream.

2) I, like many worldly and sane Americans, feel zero guilt towards blacks. Why on earth should we? They, like every other American, live in the best country in the world for blacks, whites, yellows or purples and greens. Who are you comparing the USA to in this world? Name one place where the average person has a better chance for social, spiritual, or intellectual advancement.

3) Quit bad-mouthing the USA. There is deep seated and well-founded distrust of people who pretend to believe the USA is the source of all evil while living comfy lives enjoying its wealth and freedoms. Freedoms most people in the world are literally dying to have. Freedoms fought for by Enlightened Christians, not communists, community organizers, feminists, or nihilists.

4) This brings me to Obama. Here is a man who has to a greater extent than most exploited the freedoms and generosity of the American people. If he is elected will he acknowledge his debt? Or will he join his wife, Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers and the SDSers in endless, adolescent whining and scapegoating. I predict the later. He's not man enough to own up to his obligations and responsibilities.