Pollster.com

Articles and Analysis

 

Ambinder: Race Over?

Topics: Barack Obama , Cornell Belcher

Not to be missed: My colleague Marc Ambinder has an article in the latest issue of The Atlantic on how the Obama campaign "worked methodically to woo white voters without alienating black ones--and vice versa."   Ambinder, whose sources in Obamaland were strong, draws heavily on conversations with Cornell Belcher, "a top Obama pollster who had conducted some of the campaign's earliest research on race."

The short version is that Obama gained sufficient credibility and support among African-American voters to allow his campaign to focus later in the campaign on wooing uncertain white voters, many of whom demonstrated what Belcher describes as "racial aversion." The eventual lopsided margin among black voters, Ambinder writes,

also highlights what Obama did not have to do: he did not have to pander to black leaders; he did not have to target specific messages at the black community with the attendant risk of exacerbating economic tension between blacks and whites. He did not have to bring up race. 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.

The article -- well worth reading in full -- has more details on how Belcher measured "racial aversion" and on the conclusions he drew from the data.

Ambinder also reports on Belcher's candor, back in September, about how race might limit Obama's support:

In the fall, when some Obama advisers began predicting a landslide, Belcher would have none of it. "No one with any real post-civil-rights understanding of our national political contours could with a straight face predicate a Democratic national landslide," he told me in September.

It's worth contrasting that statement with the post-election assessments of many political scientists. They found Obama's ultimate margin "not surprising" since it roughly matched what statistical models based mostly on "fundamental factors" (such as perceptions of the economy and the Bush administration) had predicted (for more details, see comments by Larry Bartels in the Brookings post-election roundtable or the concise summary, with ample links, by John Sides).

But Belcher's words of caution remind me of a comment from one of John Sides' readers in reaction to Sides argument that "the fundamentals" mattered more than the campaigns:

[T]he fact that Obama--as a black man--was able to pull within the margin of a usual victory speaks to the ability of his campaign skills. Again, coming from a sociological perspective, race is so incredibly salient in so many aspects of our lives as Americans, it is astounding that so many Americans were willing to put those sentiments aside and vote for a black man. I suspect that this is what you might mean by "It may be that the campaign helped move voters in line with the outcome that the fundamentals predict" -- but I think that understates how amazing Obama's accomplishment to be the first African American President really is.

See the same link for Sides' reply.

I can't help but thinking that if the election had turned out differently, we might have heard a chorus of "I told you so's" from a different set of political scientists reminding us of the lessons of 30 or 40 years of academic opinion research on how racial attitudes shape political preferences. It didn't happen that way, and Ambinder's piece helps explain why.

 

Comments
AlanSnipes:

I believe that race was a factor in this election. Given the state of the economy, a Democrat should have won with at least 55% of the vote. Exit polls showed that Hillary Clinton would have won by 11 points.

According to the exit polls, Obama received 43% of the white vote, only 2 points higher than John Kerry received in 2004.

I know a lot of white working class voters, engineers for example, who will never vote for a black man.

I say these things not as a criticism of Obama, but to demonstrate how far we have to go.

Now, I believe that if President Obama can make some reasonable progress on the economy, I believe this percentage can increase significantly in 2012.

In Alabama, an astounding 10% of white voters voted for Obama. In Mississippi, it was an astounding 11%.

____________________

David_T:

It is true that exit polls showed that Hillary would have won by eleven points, as opposed to Obama's "only" winning by seven. But remember that nobody had attacked Hillary for many months! Obama of course was more than eager to be nice to her as soon as he had the nomination locked up, and the GOP hoped to get her supporters to back McCain, so it never referred to her with anything but praise.

So (to echo a point Nate Silver has made)if voters went to the polls in November and suddenly saw Hillary's name substituted for Obama's, yes, maybe she would have done better than him. How Hillary would have done *if she had to face an actual general election campaign* (with the attendant attacks that would be made against her) is something different. She would no doubt do better than Obama in Appalachia and among white voters in the Deep South, but among highly educated urban and suburban voters, she might well have done worse. (And of course she would not have done so well among blacks or gotten as large a black turnout.) She would no doubt have done substantially better than Obama in western Pennsylvnaia--but would she have done nearly as well in the Philadelphia metro area, which has more voters? She would have done better in southwest Virginia--but what about the exurban Washington DC oounties that no Democrat other than Obama had caried for decades?

No doubt there is some ideal hypothetical white candidate who could have done better than Obama, but among the ones who were actually running for the nomination, I think there is a reasonable case that Obama did as well as any would have done.

(Incidentally, when it is said that Obama's victory was not a "landslide"--just when has there been a true landslide for *either* party since 1984?)

____________________



Post a comment




Please be patient while your comment posts - sometimes it takes a minute or two. To check your comment, please wait 60 seconds and click your browser's refresh button. Note that comments with three or more hyperlinks will be held for approval.

MAP - US, AL, AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, FL, GA, HI, ID, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, MO, MT, NE, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, NC, ND, OH, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VT, VA, WA, WV, WI, WY, PR