Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Is 2008 like 1960 or 1928?

There is an excellent article on the New York magazine website called "The Color-Coded Campaign". The article apparently is also in New York's print version. In the article the author argues that the reason why Obama is not getting over 50% in the polling against John McCain could be the fact that he is African-American. This is a quote from the article:

Or perhaps just one big thing. Obama, after all, isn’t having trouble with African-American voters or Hispanic voters or young voters. Where he’s lagging is among white voters, and with older ones in particular. Call me crazy, but isn’t it possible, just possible, that Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he is, you know, black? “Of course it is,” says another prominent Republican operative. “It’s the thing that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s obviously a huge factor.”

The desire to ignore the elephant in the room is easy to understand, but Obama will not have that luxury. With the Jeremiah Wright fiasco, Obama was stripped of his post-racial image, transformed in the eyes of many whites from a candidate who happened to be black into a black candidate. And now he faces a Republican machine intent on blackening him further still. Add to that his exotic background (Kenyan father, Indonesian upbringing), his middle name, his urbanity and intellectualism, and the scale of the challenge ahead for him comes into sharp relief. Whereas Reagan was an otherwise familiar archetype who needed to convince America that he was neither senile nor crazy, Obama has to make the country comfortable with the most unusual profile of any person ever to come within spitting distance of occupying the White House—while at the same time preventing the election from becoming a race consumed by race.

The author goes on to argue that there is statistical evidence to back up his argument. He points out that in the Democratic primary in Ohio, using exit polls, the percentage of Democratic voters who voted for Clinton and told exit pollsters that the race of the candidate was important to them was over 11%. In New Jersey the figure was over 9%. That's in the Democratic primary, which is presumably more "liberal" than the national electorate.

In 2000 and 2004, Al Gore and John Kerry got 42% and 42% of the national white vote. the question is can Obama get 40% of the white vote in 2008? If he does, then he wins the election, but if he doesn't, then it could be a very tough election.

Which is why the title of this article alludes to both the 1928 and the 1960 elections. In 1928 Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic to win the nomination of a major American political party. He lost the election by a substantial margin. In 1960, John F. Kennedy becomes the second Roman Catholic to be nominated by a major political party, he wins the popular vote by around 100,000 votes, although he ran up a substantial margin in the electoral college.

So how does Obama avoid being Smith and become Kennedy? The author of the New York magazine article, John Heilemann, writes that there are two responses that Democratic political operatives talk about. One is to shift the debate to issues like the economy, issues that could override the reluctance of whites to vote for Obama by reminding them that there are other issues that may be more important to their futures. The other is to go after McCain, drive up his negatives, link him to the highly unpopular Bush, and make this election a national referendum on Bush and the effect of his policies.

Heilemann argues that there is a third option, and that is to confront the issue of race head on. Although Heilemann doesn't mention it in his article, a parallel example from the 1960 campaign is JFK's speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, In that speech he took on directly the fears that a lot of Protestants had about electing a Catholic for President: that the Pope and official Church doctrine would control his decisions as president.

Looking back with what we know now, such fears seem to be overblown. JFK was not a very strict Catholic. In 1960, however, that was not known to a lot of Protestants. They were worried that Kennedy's election would lead to the Pope having influence in the Oval Office.

Kennedy met that fear head-on by arguing that he believed in a strict separation of Church and State. This is a quote from his speech:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

Of course, an argument could be made that the fears that some white Americans have about African-Americans are both deeper rooted and harder to articulate. If a voter fears the election of an African-American because he or she believes that African-Americans are inherently inferior, it is hard to imagine a speech that Obama could give that would sway such a voter. If, however, the fear is simply a fear of the unknown, then a speech by Obama could address and overcome such fears.

So there are, as Heilemann argues, three possible Obama responses. One is to try and over white racism with a transcendent issue. Another is to link McCain to Bush. Still another is to directly address the concerns that some white Americans are having about electing an African-American president. Perhaps the correct response is all three. How the Obama campaign responds to this challenge could determine whether we have a Democratic or Republican president in 2009.

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