The Associated Press postulates today that Barack Obama may have a six-point handicap in the presidential polling due to his African heritage. Based on their polling, they determine that white Americans have a negative attitude towards blacks, who also have a negative attitude towards whites, and that Democrats are not immune. However, the polling misses a few details, such as Obama’s win in the primaries:
Until now, social scientists have not closely examined racial sentiments on a nationwide scale at a moment when race is central to choosing the next president. The poll, which featured a large sample of Americans — more than 2,200 — and sophisticated survey techniques rarely used in media surveys, reflected the complexity, change and occasional contradictions of race relations.
More whites apply positive attributes to blacks than negative ones, and blacks are even more generous in their descriptions of whites. Racial prejudice is lower among college-educated whites living outside the South. And many whites who think most blacks are somewhat lazy, violent or boastful are willing or even eager to vote for Obama over Republican John McCain, who is white. …
Polls consistently show Obama running about even with McCain, or leading by a notably smaller margin than the one Democrats enjoy over Republicans in most generic surveys about which party is best suited to govern.
The AP-Yahoo News poll suggests that racial prejudice could cost Obama up to 6 percentage points this fall. That’s a big hurdle in a nation whose last two presidential elections were decided by much smaller margins.
I’m not going to discount this out of hand. Most conventional wisdom would have it as a wash — that the number of people not voting for Obama because of his race would be roughly offset by those voting for him expressly or primarily for that reason. Both voters exist, and examples of the latter can be found in the media. Chris Matthews has openly expressed his support for Obama because of the message it will send about the transcendence of American history Obama’s victory would represent, and he’s not the only media analyst to make that case. However, the idea that they cancel each other out is at best a guess, and polling on the issue would be instructive.
I’m not certain that the AP/Yahoo poll satisfies that, however. First, the methodology seems rather suspect. They ask several questions about attitudes that hardly seems predictive of voting patterns, and their own numbers show why. The attitudes don’t change on an age-demographic basis, while Obama’s support clearly is strongest among younger voters. If that depended on less racism, then his support demographics would make no sense (or this poll does a bad job in identifying racism). Two-thirds of Democrats who note two or more negative attitudes towards blacks plan to vote for Obama, making supposed racism a non-factor.
Fortunately, we have more solid evidence at hand. First, Obama beat Hillary Clinton, especially in caucuses, where enthusiasm counts much more than in normal primaries. Given the AP/Yahoo findings in their polling, Obama never should have beaten the better-organized and more well-known Hillary. Second, Obama has almost no resumé for this job. When was the last time a major party nominated a first-term Senator with no executive or military experience as its presidential nominee? Obama’s ethnicity may not have been the reason why Democrats nominated him with these real questions about experience, but it certainly didn’t appear to handicap him, either.
They still could be correct about their conclusions, but they need much better evidence than what they show here.