Sunday, September 21, 2008

Race Cards and Getting To Know You

Race Cards and Getting To Know You

"Have you ever noticed that Barack Obama is part African American?"

That soft-spoken sentence from the governor of Kansas sure kicked off a firestorm around here. There were enough other oopses this past week. Sarah Palin managed two in one Iowa speech, noting how glad she was that the "Palin-McCain" ticket was in "Grand" Rapids. John McCain promised to fire the Securites and Exchange Commission chair--which a president doesn't get to do--and placed Spain in Latin America, where, as Dan Quayle would note, they speak Latin. And Joe Biden got some flak for saying higher taxes are patriotic. (That's two now, for those of you keeping score at home, but once again he got lucky thanks to bigger gaffes by others the same day.)

But Kathleen Sebelius landed on the front page of the Drudge Report. This is what happens to traffic when you are on the front page of the Drudge report.

The politics of outrage, real outrage or artificially stoked mock outrage, that tried to pigeonhole every criticism of Sarah Palin as "sexist," demand that we take Deep Offense at Sebelius' statement. But let's be honest with ourselves. If a stand up comedian had said the same thing, we would have just laughed.

That's one of the struggles Democratic senate candidate Al Franken is facing in Minnesota. People expect Franken, as a professional comedian, to be, well, funny. But political expectations demand that he be serious. Thus Franken has a hard time playing to his strengths, and a harder time getting to the deeper truths than he did in his books or on Air America and "Saturday Night Live." (Apparently, Franken has coped by calling in a sketch idea to his old SNL colleagues, who led the show with it last night.)

We have this dichotomy between politics and the rest of public discourse. We laugh at Dave Chappelle's blind white supremacist who doesn't realize he's black, yet the slightest hint of anything that can be remotely construed as racial dialogue is met with a shocked, shocked we are reaction worthy of Claude Rains.

Real people, around water coolers and across fences around the country, have in fact noticed Obama's race, and Palin's gender, and many of them are going to make decisions accordingly.

How many? We have no clue because, surprise surprise, people lie to pollsters sometimes. They call it "the Bradley effect" or "the Wilder effect," after two black politicians who performed better in pre-election polling than they did in the privacy of the booth.

Sober discussion around this subject is difficult (read the comments on my Sebelius story for examples of just how difficult). An Associated Press-Stanford study tries to quantify the race factor and contends that "the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points."

But FiveThirtyEight disputes the claims point by point and notes that the poll does not account for how many people will vote for Obama because he is black. FiveThirtyEight also notes that Obama's mixed-race heritage is an inherent part of his unique biography and appeal: "His change message is probably somewhat easier to sell because he looks different than other (e.g. white) politicians. If he were white, in other words, Barack Obama would not be Barack Obama." FiveThirtyEight concludes that the race factor probably is four to five percent of the vote.

Mark Ambinder cites a recent Harvard study that says the page turned at a very specific date and on very specific issues:
When racially charged issues like welfare and crime dominated the political rhetoric, racial factors affected voting behavior and the Wilder effect asserted itself. But once welfare disappeared as a salient issue in 1996, political discourse was deracialized and race was less of a factor in voters' mind.

I was a candidate that year, and the day Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill I was door knocking in one of my more Republican towns. The move was overwhelmingly popular at the door, and I could almost see Clinton raking in the chips as Ronald Reagan's welfare queen card was taken off the table. Not that Bob Dole was going to win that election anyway. I could sum it up in four words: "Bob Dole's too old." In retrospect, it seems Dole was nominated eight years too late and ran against the strengths of his own personality. (Yet to be seen: if history will repeat itself for the even older McCain.) But had Clinton vetoed that welfare reform bill, Dole would probably have been able to make a closer race of it.

This is more anecdotal evidence, but may make my point. A quarter century ago when I went to college, the guys in my dorm seemed to break into three groups on racial issues. There were guys like me who came from small, all-white Wisconsin towns, who had few preconceptions and were clueless but usually open-minded and willing to learn. Then there were the guys from Milwaukee proper, the state's largest city where almost all of the black population was concentrated. They had six black best friends and listened to the same music.

But it was the guys from the suburbs, close enough to see the inner city's problems but too far away to know any real people as individuals, who had issues and unstrung my Prince tape down the hall (there were some homophobia issues there, too).

The Obama campaign is well aware of that peer-to-peer factor. There are too many of us at this stage of the game for Obama to shake every hand personally, but the campaign is using data-mining technology to get volunteers to build those one-on-one connections.

But Iowa, of course, is special in presidential politics. That may be one reason Obama is doing so better here, where he camped out for months and met thousands of voters, than he is in the rust belt states where the campaign was an air war rather than a ground war. We Iowans got to know Obama as a person and not as a distant face on television. It's the strongest possible environment for Obama, and one of the weakest for McCain, who despite his visit this week campaigned minimally here in 2000 and 2008. The personal factor is one big reason Iowa is rated as the number one most likely state to flip from red to blue this year.

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