Obama could face race vote melt

'Obama Hussein', by Chris JohnstonIn recent weeks Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama appears to have gained significantly in the polls, pulling ahead as far as ten points nationally over John McCain in some polls. With a week to go until the election, everyone's question seems to be, what effect will latent racism have on the actual vote?

In 1982 African-American Tom Bradley ran for governor of California. At the time of the election he was up by 12 points, according to Democratic polls. Yet somehow he lost by a half a per cent. The post-election analysis suggested that polled voters had not honestly expressed their preference, perhaps out of a discomfort that they would appear prejudiced, or because they had a prejudice they didn't want exposed.

Since then, analysts have spoken of the 'Bradley Effect' to describe the percentage point melt that occurs for African-American candidates on election day.

However, the data on this phenomenon remains inconclusive. A recent study of 133 elections held between 1989 and 2006 and involving African-American candidates found on average a Bradley Effect of three percentage points before 1996.

But since 1996, African-Americans running for office have performed on average three percentage points better than their polls predict. Could it be possible that Obama is doing even better than his poll numbers suggest?

Analysis suggests that racism may play a factor in the Catholic vote in certain parts of the country. A September front-page story in The New York Times featured a Catholic parish in Scranton, PA, hometown of Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden.

Of six Catholics interviewed who voted for Hillary Clinton, five said they would now support McCain, not Obama. While some said this was due to McCain's pro-life stance, one indicated quite directly his reason was race. Referring to the White House, he asked, 'Are they going to make it the Black House?'

A local political scientist affirmed that this working-class Catholic community 'is a tough area for Obama and some of it is race'. Though few are eager to express their bigotry, similar inclinations are suspected in other working class Catholic communities.

And the Republican Party has been keen to provide cover for such prejudice by playing upon other fears. Since Obama first became a candidate, the ardently conservative, Rupert Murdoch-owned FOX News has always referred to Obama by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, in a not-too-subtle attempt to link Obama to terrorism.

Likewise, as the McCain campaign has tanked and McCain himself casts wildly about for a foothold of any kind, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has been whipping crowds into a frenzy by saying that Obama is 'palling around with terrorists' and that he 'is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America'.

Some of those interviewed leaving the rallies appear to genuinely believe Obama is a Muslim, an Arab and/or a terrorist sympathiser. At these rallies one hears people freely yelling racial epithets and crying 'Treason!', 'Terrorist!' and even 'Kill him!' So far the McCain campaign has done nothing to condemn these comments.

In the final analysis, I suspect the role of racism in the election will be significant in some areas, perhaps especially in some working class white communities. But, short of it being revealed that the Obamas have been sending their daughters to summer camp in the hills of Afghanistan, I think it is unlikely it will make the difference in the election. Far more serious issues press upon the country and the world.

And though the crowds at McCain's rallies appear large and motivated, by all estimates they constitute not swing voters but his true believers.

No, the real fear is not that racism will cause Obama to lose the election, but that as a black president he may face threats against his life. And the more Palin, FOX News et al. continue to stir their partisans into a violent, irrational fervor, the more that fear grows.

Jim McDermottJim McDermott SJ is an associate editor at America Magazine, the Jesuit Catholic weekly in the United States. He recently finished a seven month assignment in Australia.

Topic tags: jim mcdermott, bradley effect, tom bradley, african-american candidate, barrack obama, race issues



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Existing comments

I fear for Barack Obama and his family - racist people in the USA will not like having a 'coloured' person as President. Security around him and his family needs to be very tight. I pray that good sense prevails and everyone accepts whoever wins regardless of colour.
pat | 27 October 2008

With sincere respect Fr McDermott, one swallow does not a Summer make. What evidence are you proffering, apart from a stray lame joke about the White House being the "Black House" and the opinion (unsupported by any data) of a lone, unnamed political scientist, that generally, American working-class Catholics deserve to be labelled racist and bigots?

And then to take the allegation even further: "Similar inclinations are suspected in other working-class Catholic communities" - based upon what? I have met many American Catholics - many more than the sample given in this article - and NONE are even REMOTELY as described. They have a massive problem with Obama's support for partial-birth abortion though. So, even with genuine admiration for him in many other respects, this life issue for them might just be a deal-breaker. To disdainfully decide it is due to racism is false - and disrespectful to both the voters and Obama himself.

You would no doubt be aware that your well-written words are powerful - and with that gift comes a duty to seek and reveal the truth. Kind regards, from an astounded reader.
S York | 27 October 2008

S. York, your comment, and especially its use of the word 'generally', is an unfair exaggeration of what Fr McDermott said.
Gavan | 27 October 2008

I think you make a fair point, S. York. The article does give just an anecdote. It's hardly a good sample.

The problem most journalists are facing is that it's hard to get much more than that. As you might imagine, people who might have a race bias are generally unlikely to speak about it publicly, let alone to a journalist.

I'd agree with you, too, I see very little to suggest that most American Catholics, or most rural American Catholics for that matter, have racist inclinations. And certainly for many the abortion issue is a far more pressing concern.

But the question of racism among Catholics in some regions is significant enough that a bishop, Blase Cupich of Rapid City, wrote an unsolicited editorial about racism and the election in America Magazine, the nation's largest Catholic weekly [for which I work], just last week. In the article he condemned racism as our country's own "original sin" and called a vote based on race alone as a perpetuation of an intrinsic evil. (Bishop Cupich has written for America about abortion, as well.)

I appreciate the challenging feedback.

Jim McDermott | 28 October 2008

We can only pray that the "Bradley effect" comes into full play this election, for the sake of millions of unborn Americans (and others).

Voting against someone because of the colour of his skin is a serious sin. Voting for someone who espouses removal of all legal restrictions on abortion, when an alternative candidate does not, is an infinitely more serious sin. The election of a man who would ensure that millions more Americans murdered is "the real fear" this election, not the fear that ONE person may be murdered. His life is no more important than any one of them.

And talking to 6 Catholics and finding one who makes a slightly racist wisecrack, and claiming without any other evidence other than the opinion of an unnamed "local political scientist" that "racism" is "suspected in other working class Catholic communities", is not "analysis" by any stretch of definition.

You assert that referring to Obama by his full name is "a not-too-subtle attempt to link Obama to terrorism". Tosh. It is standard practice for US commentators wanting to sound well informed, respectful or full of gravitas to refer to presidents by their full name. One could equally argue that Fox is trying to make Obama seem more "presidential".

And maybe the use of the present tense is incorrect, but Obama definitely "palled around" a lot with terrorists in the past. That is a fact.
Ronk | 28 October 2008

Thank you so much for the generosity of spirit in your reply to my feedback, Fr McDermott. I applaud people like you who write on contentious issues, bravely and thoughtfully putting your ideas out in public for scrutiny and criticism.I have now read the Bishop Cupich article and am digesting its message. He would not presumably have written an article of that nature without reason. I was left curious though as to whether he thought the life issue was significant enough to make a sole issue in the voting decision? I completely agreed with him re:"The promotion neither of abortion nor racism can ever be a motivation for one’s vote. Voting for a candidate solely because of that candidate’s support for abortion or against him or her solely on the basis of his or her race is to promote an intrinsic evil. To do so consciously is indeed sinful. That is behavior incompatible with being a Christian." But what about the promotion of a culture of life? Would that be a sufficient sole basis for casting one's vote? Support for abortion does permeate other areas - it lessens the value of human life in the whole hierarchy, effectively making the problems at other levels move down a notch in significance, affecting attitudes: to the disabled, the elderly, to teenagers (eg suffering from depression or who are juvenile offenders etc) and other groups. It even creates hostility to women. Their problems become trivialised, as they could have avoided it or "had themselves fixed up". This life issue is one which, for people who believe in ultimate accountability, want to get 100% right. It is complex. Obama is impressively strong on issues which indicate a social justice conscience. Does he plan to be more supportive of life issues once in power? Is there some material out there indicating this, that you have come across and could share? Thanks and sincere regards.
S York | 30 October 2008

This is a reply to RONK, who wrote: "We can only pray that the 'Bradley effect' comes into full play this election, for the sake of millions of unborn Americans (and others)."

Ronk, please understand that if the most "pro-life" scenario comes into play - if the right to privacy interpretation of the 14th Amendment is removed - abortions will continue to be performed in the US. The difference will be that they will no longer be safe or legal, and the likelihood of late term abortions (which Obama does not support and which are excluded from the FOC Act) will skyrocket.

Repealing Roe v. Wade would not stop abortion from happening, it would simply shift the responsibility for regulating it onto the states. Meanwhile, our federally-protected right to privacy - which covers many circumstances - would be gone.

Abortion has always been with us, throughout history. It's better to face reality and allow it to be performed legally.

Please rethink your position.
Anne | 02 November 2008

Surely it is telling that the voters interviewed were formerly supporters of Hillary Clinton. She is pro-choice so their decision not to then support Barack Obama could not have been on the issue of his support for Roe v Wade. It has been depressing to read/hear the subliminal messages on race in the Republican campaign;dog whistle politics that Senator McCain has done little to discourage. I hope Senator Obama prevails- a new approach to politics is well overdue. He offers hope of a different America which will engage with the world in a positive way.
Kate | 04 November 2008


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