Racism and the Race

Charles Blow's column in the NY Times today is interesting, but I have to take exception with a couple of points. Not with his overall argument, mind you--racism has been and will continue to be an undeniable factor in this presidential race. We are not, and I have real doubts we will become in the near future, a post-racist society, even though we have made huge strides in the last 40 years I have been alive.

The first point I want to address is one that I see repeated everywhere, and which I have addressed more than once. Blow asks "So why is the presidential race a statistical dead heat?" It really isn't--that's a myth that's being pushed by the press in an attempt to keep this race interesting. In national polls, except for the daily tracking ones which are prone to a lot of noise, Obama has held a lead in the 3-6 point range since May. That's not a dead heat--that's a consistent lead, and it's even more impressive when you acknowledge that McCain came into this race as a known quantity with an undeserved reputation as an independent.

But look at the race on a state by state level, which is how it's actually run, and you get a whole different picture. Fivethirtyeight.com has Obama with a 64% chance of winning in November, based on state by state polling, and currently predicts Obama winning 295 electoral votes to McCain's 243. Again, not close. Sure, a lot can change between now and November, but for the moment, this is not a dead heat, and media figures would do well to stop repeating that.

This was what I found more interesting, however.

According to a July New York Times/CBS News poll, when whites were asked whether they would be willing to vote for a black candidate, 5 percent confessed that they would not. That’s not so bad, right? But wait. The pollsters then rephrased the question to get a more accurate portrait of the sentiment. They asked the same whites if most of the people they knew would vote for a black candidate. Nineteen percent said that those they knew would not. Depending on how many people they know and how well they know them, this universe of voters could be substantial. That’s bad.
Yeah, it's bad, but I don't know how big that makes the universe of people who won't vote for a black candidate. What's more, I don't know how much it would affect this election in particular, considering that the majority of that universe is firmly ensconced in either the Republican party of the fringe parties to its right. Yes, there are going to be Democrats and Independents who won't vote for Obama for racist reasons, but they're in the considerable minority.

Secondly, I wonder how much of that 19% comes from people who are just cynical about their friends? There was a time, not long ago, when I might have answered that poll question in the affirmative myself--certainly before the Iowa caucus, I had reservations about Obama's candidacy, about whether white voters would support him. I'm really glad I was wrong. But having grown up in the south and lived with de facto segregation at times, I have reason to be cynical about it, and so do a lot of other people. The primary/caucus season, despite the way it got testy near the end, cleared away a lot of the racial cynicism I and many other white people had about their fellows.

The result is that I'm less concerned about race being a deciding factor this year. If McCain were a stronger candidate, and if Obama weren't as strong as he is, and if the race were really as close as the media is casting it, then I'd be more worried. But for now, I'm feeling good about the race.

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