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Obama's Candidacy is a Test

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Saturday, July 05, 2008

"They're going to try to make you afraid of me," Barack Obama told the audience at a Jacksonville fundraiser last month. "He's young and inexperienced and he's got a funny name. And did I mention he's black?" Obama was doing here by inference what many of his supporters do more explicitly. Obama's candidacy, in their view, puts American voters to the test: Are they open-minded enough to vote for a black candidate? Or are they still so overcome by racial prejudice as to reject the first black candidate with a serious chance to win?

There are obviously problems with this. In a nation of 303 million, there are surely some people who won't vote for Obama because he's black. But there are a lot more Americans who aren't willing to vote for him for other reasons that have nothing to do with race -- because he's a Democrat, because he's taken liberal positions on many issues, because (to quote his own words) he's young and inexperienced.

In any case, Obama's candidacy by itself is not a test of whether Americans are unwilling to vote for a black candidate; to determine that, you would have to take into account whether those unwilling to vote for him would be willing to vote for a different kind of black candidate. And as it happens, there is such a test case. In the fall of 1995, Colin Powell, fresh from a boffo book tour, was (or was widely thought to be) contemplating running for president. There were plenty of polls matching him as the Republican nominee against incumbent Democrat Bill Clinton. And running well: A typical Gallup poll had him leading Clinton 54 to 39 percent.

That 's bigger than any lead Obama has had over John McCain this year. And an analysis of 1995 and 2008 polls show that these two black candidates (putative candidate in the case of Powell, if you like) shows that they were attracting many different voters. In 1995, Powell was winning virtually all Republicans, a majority of Independents and a small number of Democrats. In recent polls this year, Obama has been winning virtually all Democrats, about half the Independents and a small number of Republicans. In other words, they have largely non-overlapping constituencies.

That seems to leave considerably less than 10 percent of American voters either (a) unwilling to vote for Powell in 1995 and (b) unwilling to vote for Obama in 2008. And some of that small number are surely motivated by factors other than race. So I would submit that the vast majority of American voters have already passed the test. They've shown they're willing to vote for a black candidate, provided he has acceptable views on issues and appropriate experience for the job.

The objection may be made that I am basing my conclusions on polls rather than actual election results. In the races for governor in California in 1982 and Virginia in 1989, preelection polls seem to have understated the percentages ready to vote against black candidates Tom Bradley and Douglas Wilder. But those elections were held 26 and 19 years ago. And we did not see a similar effect in most Democratic primaries this year: It was Obama's vote that was understated in pre-primary polls in New Hampshire.

Exit polls taken on Election Day did tend to overstate Obama's percentage in many states. But that could result from respondent self-selection. Only about half of those approached to take the exit poll do so. Obama voters, with higher levels of enthusiasm for their candidate, may have been more likely than Hillary Clinton voters to go to the trouble of filling out the exit poll. That's consistent with the greater propensity of Obama supporters to participate in caucuses in the four states that held both caucuses and primaries.

On balance I think Obama's race has been a political asset. I believe that most Americans think it would be a good thing, all other things being reasonably equal, for our country to elect a black president. I know I feel that way myself. I think that impulse has inspired many voters, ever since his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, to give Obama a sympathetic look-over, to be readier perhaps to appreciate his strengths and to overlook his weaknesses than they might be with an otherwise similar non-black candidate. The refusal of a very small number of voters to support a black candidate does not, I think, offset this significant advantage. The Obama candidacy is indeed a test -- a test not of American voters, but of Barack Obama.

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