x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

White voters could abandon Obama

Global Perspectives Political scientists believe the race to the White House will be decided by how much "racial leakage" occurs on election day.

Barack Obama will have to overcome voters' personal prejudices, according to political analysts.
Barack Obama will have to overcome voters' personal prejudices, according to political analysts.

"Beware of little white lies." That was how the caption read on a political cartoon published in Nov 1989, a few days after Douglas Wilder became the first African-American elected governor in the United States. The message was simple, yet disturbing: polls had shown Mr Wilder ahead of his white opponent, Marshall Coleman, by as many as nine percentage points right up to election day. He won by fewer than 7,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast, or less than half a per cent.

Many Virginia voters had obviously lied to the pollsters about voting for a black man in 1989. Seven years earlier, a similar scenario had played out in California when the Los Angeles mayor, Tom Bradley, who had been predicted to win the governorship by eight percentage points, lost the race to his white opponent. Now, all these years later, as the presidential campaign heads into its home stretch, the race question - the Bradley/Wilder effect, as political scientists call it - lies below the surface, an issue the pollsters and pundits occasionally talk about. But it is one that few US citizens would care to admit could be a determining factor in who succeeds George W Bush in the Oval Office.

With back-to-back African-American secretaries of state, 43 black members of Congress and with about 10,000 African Americans holding state and local offices, the United States has made significant progress in racial equality since Mr Wilder was sworn in as governor of the state that had been the capital of the confederacy. The rise of the black middle class and African Americans' political empowerment in the 45 years since Martin Luther King Jr gave his "I Have a Dream" speech have been nothing short of remarkable.

But anyone who is honest about the United States knows there will be those who will not vote for Barack Obama, the son of a white mother and a black father, simply because of the colour of his skin. Will their numbers be enough to sway the election? Richard Prince, who chronicles diversity issues in the media for the California-based Maynard Institute, said: "Of course, it's true" that whites will lie to pollsters about voting for Mr Obama. "Just look at the current polls and how close the election is when it shouldn't be."

Larry Sabato, an authority on presidential politics at the University of Virginia, said: "The country has made a lot of racial progress since 1989, and the USA is not the Virginia of two decades ago ? Still, I'd think we'd be very naive to think there isn't going to be racial leakage on election day itself. "Some blue-collar white Democrats will have told pollsters in advance that they were going to vote for the party's candidate, but once in the booth, they may be unable to punch Obama's line."

Carole Edwards, a former public relations executive in affluent, racially diverse Fairfax County, Virginia, added another twist: "I think white men are going to be as much a problem for Obama as blue- collar women, though the polls might not indicate that ? I have several friends and relatives who say they simply don't want a black president, and all of them are white males ? I hope Obama can figure out a way to address that."

Of course, Mr Obama's inspiring rhetoric and detailed position papers cannot force some white Americans to do what is evident to anyone who has lived in a majority black city such as the nation's capital or its suburbs. After the workday is done or the last school bell rings, blacks and whites, Hispanics and Asians tend to go their separate ways, even when there are ample opportunities to get to know one another.

The races and ethnic groups do not socialise together as much as the melting pot image would have one believe. For a country in which nearly 13 per cent of its citizens are black and 15 per cent Hispanic, there are too many white Americans who have never shared a meal or a meaningful conversation with a member of another race. When it comes to voting, this could charitably be called the "comfort factor". You can bet your last dollar Republican strategists know all about this. The inclusion of Sarah Palin on the McCain ticket plays right into the minds of any whites - working-class women and non-urban gun-rights advocates, especially - who might have reservations about voting for an African-American. Certainly, they would never tell a pollster, or even a co-worker, that.

Now, they can say they voted for the ticket with a woman, and not against a black man. Racism hides behind many masks. "I just hope the voters refuse to let the Republicans snooker them in the same cynical way for the third election in a row," said Ms Edwards, echoing the thoughts and worries that probably can be heard aloud anywhere progressive Democrats gather these days. Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University, put a candid perspective on the issue. "I find the Bradley effect very striking. Maybe not the best way to put it, but it suggests that McCain has been spotted maybe three to five percentage points in this campaign. So if Obama is ahead by merely that amount going into the election, I am not at all confident that he will win.

"On the other hand, after so much racial progress in the US, it will be terrible if Obama loses by a narrow margin and observers widely attribute the loss to racism." Go back nearly 20 years, and Chris OBrion was compelled to draw a political cartoon with graphs mocking the polls and "the little white lies". A close look at the points on the graphs revealed the shape of a Ku Klux Klan hood, arguably one the most reviled symbols of the US past.

Racism's legacy stung then - and still does. As for race-based voting in this year's election, Mr OBrion said: "I don't know if it would be as pronounced as Wilder's. But I do think it will be there. I think one thing that may help Obama is the new voters." Just as in 1989 and in every election since in which a white candidate has faced an African-American where whites are a majority of the electorate, the personal conscience of the voter, new and old, will determine all.

For Mr Obama to win - and for any little white lies to be negated - a significant number of US voters will have to put conscience over personal prejudices. As Mr Sabato of UVA said: "We will all find out together how significant the [racial] leakage is the evening of November 4th - probably not before then." The United States' better image of itself rests on the outcome. rpretorius@thenational.ae