Race and the presidency

As Election Day nears, we’re hearing more stories about racism in the vote. The camp for Barack Obama is concerned about “The Bradley Effect” (also known as the Wilder Effect), as explained this week in Time.

The theory holds that voters have a tendency to withhold their leanings from pollsters when they plan to vote for a white candidate instead of a black one. In 1982, Tom Bradley–the African-American mayor of Los Angeles–ran for governor of California. On the eve of the election, polls anointed him a prohibitive favorite. But on election day, Bradley lost to his white opponent, Republican George Deukmejian. Some experts chalked up the skewed polling to skin color.

MPR’s Mark Zdechlik looked at the subject in a story today, and found Democratic officials suggesting race is a factor.

“Oh yeah, we hear a lot of that,” one Obama supporter said. “Just the race color basically that’s the main thing. People up here they’re afraid to elect someone that’s not a Caucasian. That’s basically all you hear.”

But the story said other people had voiced concern about Obama’s race, but no person who harbored those feelings appeared in the story.

In an MPR newscast this morning, Senate District 5 DFL Chair Kathy Daniels said some Democrats have hesitations about Obama because of his race.

“From the phone calls that have been coming out of this office it looks to me like a lot of people are prejudiced, but they won’t say and they’re still going to vote the Democratic ticket.”

What’s wrong with that picture? If they won’t say, how do you know they’re prejudiced? It’s a serious enough allegation to demand proof with every assertion, and clearly around the country, the two have been paired. But not this time.

The assertion differs from the experience of pollster John Zogby. “We are picking up prejudicial sentiment in this race, and there are a core group of people who say they will not vote for Obama because he is black,” Zogby told the San Francisco Chronicle. “But I think we are in a post-Bradley-effect America. We have honorable bigots. They say they won’t vote for him, and then they don’t vote for him.”

In the first presidential debate, John McCain didn’t look at Barack Obama. A caller on MPR’s Midmorning defined its meaning. “He grew up in a culture where if a black man looked into the eyes of a white man, it was a threat,” he said.

It was, he contended, racism, a point that led Kerri Miller to schedule an entire program on the subject earlier this month.

Is a vote against Barack Obama a vote for racism? To prove one is not a racist, does one have to vote for Obama? The pundits will have a crack at that when the first returns start coming in on Election Day.

But few have hit the fast-forward button. What if Obama wins the presidency? Does the “race issue” disappear or will the loyal opposition be viewed through a racial prism?

  • Heather

    I think it’s pretty obvious that there are legitimate ideological reasons other than race to vote for McCain (that’s why there are two parties, right?), so it seems unlikely to me that McCain voters will be cast *only* as racist no matter who wins. HOWEVER, there are certain positions — such as that taken by Clinton supporters switching to McCain, if they’re really out there — that smack to me of unspoken racism. Basically, if someone is voting against their ideology by voting for McCain, I’d suspect racism. How one would sort them out after election day, though, I have no idea. That’s the beauty of the secret ballot.

    To people who would ordinarily support a Dem but are hesitating to do so because of Obama’s race, I’d say: Remember that his Mom was white. Just vote for that “half”!

  • bsimon

    Somewhat lost in the incessant discussion of the so-called ‘Bradley effect’ is the interesting comment by Bradley’s pollster at the time. He said that internal polls showed Bradley was behind – that the public polls contained methodology errors that wrongly reported a Bradley lead. In other words, the problem wasn’t racism, the problem was bad polls. Comments in the initial post, above, bear that out.

  • Alison

    I doubt the effect is consistent state by state, where it really matters in this race.

  • momkat

    When we elect Obama as President, the race issue won’t disappear. But I think huge inroads toward racial harmony will be made as they have been made by Alan Page, Colon Powell, Condi Rice, etc. I also think his election will be seen positively by the rest of the world.

  • sm

    In looking at the DNC speeches a number of them compared Barack Obama to JFK. This reminded me of fears voters had about JFK being the first Catholic president. Would he be unduly influenced by the Pope and the church?

    This somewhat parallels concerns about Obama and race, that is, will he be unduly favorable to issues of black (and minority) Americans at the expense of white Americans? If Obama is seen as the Great Black Hope, can he be a president to all? While this is phrased in terms of race it’s more about economic class divisions.