Race and the Presidential Election

Washington Matters

Race and the Presidential Election

Interpreting the plethora of polls we see is always difficult, but never more so than this year, when race is added to the potential for misconstruing the real intentions of voters, many of whom resent talking to pollsters in any event. That's why it's worth the effort to try to understand the ABC/Washington Post poll on race released this weekend.


Polls that involve African-American candidates have raised automatic caution flags ever since Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley ran for governor in 1982.  Polls, including Election Day exit polls, showed him with a big lead over his white opponent, but he ended up losing the contest. Pollsters concluded that many of those surveyed had lied for fear they'd be seen as racist if they said they were against Bradley.


Many think the Bradley effect is a factor this year, leading to an overstatement of white support for Obama, but the fact is, in the primaries at least, the polls generally turned out to be a relatively accurate gauge of his support (or at least no more inaccurate than they were in gauging support for other Democratic and Republican candidates). Voters may be less than candid in saying why they won't vote for Obama -- citing his positions or lack of experience or religious background -- but they seem to be fairly honest in telling pollsters whether or not they will vote for him.


With that as background, ABC and The Washington Post decided to delve further into the race issue in a poll conducted last week. They found that about a third of Americans of both races admit to some degree of racial prejudice. Surprisingly, Obama did just as well among those who said race would be an important factor as he did with those who said it would not be important. That's a little hard to accept at face value.


To get past what people were saying, the ABC/Washington Post poll tried to measure what people were feeling by creating a racial sensitivity index based on several questions about race -- such as whether respondents had a good friend who was of a different race. It found that among those who had the highest "sensitivity rating" (a euphemism for measuring racism), Obama was favored by 20 points. Among those with the lowest rating, McCain was favored by a 2-1 margin. That's a pretty big difference and a pretty big indication that race is hurting Obama among a certain segment of the voters.


That problem, though, isn't necessarily fatal to his candidacy. In fact, a greater percentage of voters have an age bias against McCain, telling pollsters they worry about a 72-year-old taking office next January. Plus, many of the voters who may be concerned about Obama's race probably wouldn't have voted for him anyway. Most didn't vote for John Kerry or Al Gore in the last two elections.


One of the more optimistic results of the poll was that by overwhelming margins, both whites and blacks think Obama's candidacy will improve race relations in the U.S. And most think that's needed. About half of all Americans (63% of blacks and 43% of whites) describe race relations in the U.S. as "not so good" or "poor."


Polls have also suggested that race is helping Obama, with some white voters supporting him because they want to make a statement about race. They could end up outnumbering those who vote against him over race.


But some African Americans worry about that trend. In a fascinating discussion on the Bill Moyers' PBS show on Friday, Glenn C. Loury of Brown University worried aloud that people would conclude that Obama's candidacy means there is no longer a race problem in the U.S., reducing support for affirmative action and other programs. Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson was more optimistic, though he, too, believes a lot more needs to be done to help African-Americans get the same level of opportunities available to whites.


Both speculated on what would happen if Obama carries through on a suggestion to base affirmative action programs on class rather than race, with efforts aimed helping all poor people (and by implication fewer black people). As they explained, that has advantages and disadvantages, and the overall implications are hard to predict. It was a thoughtful, frank and eye-opening conversation and the transcript is well worth the time.