January 9, 2008

Obama’s polls/results gap may show the opposite of what people think it does

Barack Obama did much worse in the New Hampshire primary than polls suggested he would. As the night unfolded, analysts started relating this to similar events in other races featuring black candidates, such as Tom Bradley’s and Doug Wilder’s campaigns for the governorships of California and Virginia respectively. Evidently, Americans are more eager to be perceived as voting for an African-American than they are to actually vote for one.

If that interpretation is correct, and I think it is, there are two major ways of explaining the phenomenon.

  1. Hidden racism – people are ashamed to admit to being racists, but in the secrecy of the voting booth let their true feelings show.
  2. The virtue of supporting a minority – people are eager to be perceived as pro-diversity.  But in the secrecy of the voting booth they pick the candidate they really want, with race being set aside.

Theory #1 is the conventional wisdom, but a key piece of evidence supports Theory #2 instead. According to commentators, the black poll-versus-results gap is a factor only in elections, not in caucuses. The difference is that elections are secret, while in caucuses you stand up in front of your neighbors and vote in a very public way. Well, every white person who voted for Obama at an Iowa caucus gave evidence of non-racism. But did voting for Edwards or Clinton lead anybody to be perceived as racist? I think not. Voting for a white candidate is the common thing to do; it proves nothing about your racism or lack of it. Only when you vote for a non-white person do you make a statement about your racial inclinations either way.

If I’m right in this analysis, then Barack Obama stands to gain by telling a “blackness” story, not to lose. Besides, as I noted before, Obama’s race is an important part of his change-centric messaging strategy.


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