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The Other Forty Percent

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Everyone knows what the "right" answer is to the question of whether you would be willing to vote for an African-American for president. The "right" answer is yes. What's surprising is not how many people say yes, but how many don't. According to a Rasmussen Reports poll taken last week, 78 percent of all Americans said yes to that question, leaving 22 percent admitting either that they would not be willing to vote for an African-American (11 percent) or aren't sure (the other 11 percent).

Of course, since everyone knows what the "right" answer is, if you really want to know how much race matters, you don't ask people what they'd be willing to do; you ask them about their family, friends and co-workers. The question is not whether you are what most of us would consider to be a racist, but whether other people you know are. Easier to admit that way. And that's when you get the most disturbing finding of the recent Rasmussen poll.

Knowing that you're supposed to say yes, knowing that political correctness, not to mention evenhandedness and fairness, counsel that the answer to your willingness to vote for an African-American is supposed to be "yes," 17 percent of white voters say that their family, friends and co-workers would not vote for an African-American and 26 percent more just aren't sure. Not sure if your best friends are racist? Nice. That totals up to more than 40 percent -- more than four in 10.

If four in 10 white Americans are willing to admit to a pollster that their friends, family and co-workers might not vote for an African-American because of his race, how many really hold that view? More.

Now maybe, given the current political situation, when people hear the question, they believe it really means: Are you willing to vote for Barack Obama? Maybe all those people saying "no" or "not sure" would be giving a different answer if the Republican Party were about to nominate Colin Powell. Maybe some of this is about Obama, and not about race per se.

Or maybe not. In any event, it doesn't matter. Obama is the one who's running, and to anyone who thinks racism is part of our history and not our current reality, look again.

Right now, Obama is running well behind the generic Democrat, and McCain is running well ahead of the generic Republican. That means when people are asked about supporting Democrats for Congress, the generic Democrat for Congress does as well as 15 points better than the real-life Democratic candidate for president. It means McCain does better than the Republican brand, maybe because people like him more than they do Republicans generally, or maybe because they like Obama less than they do Democrats generally. Either way, it spells a major challenge.

There is a long tradition of people lying to pollsters about their support for African-American candidates. Remember California Gov. Tom Bradley? Not. He was way ahead in every poll, right up to and including election day. The only one he lost was the secret ballot that actually counted. We saw the same phenomenon in a number of pre-primary and exit polls in big states this year, where Obama was supposed to be closing the gap, or even taking the lead, and then lost in the actual balloting to Hillary Clinton by comfortable margins. It got to the point that I started ignoring the warning lights on the Drudge Report on primary Tuesdays at 5 p.m., showing contests that Hillary ended up winning comfortably to be too close to call. They weren't. People were just lying.

Obama is who he is. He can run a campaign that transcends race; he can reach out to white voters; he can keep away from his former pastor and his former church. But he can't change his race and he shouldn't try. Nor can he change, in a mere five months, racial prejudices that are so deeply ingrained that four in 10 white voters aren't even embarrassed enough to lie about them. Still, no candidate wants to be in the position where you have to win the votes of every person -- or even five out of six of them -- who might consider voting for you. That's too little room for disagreement. It's why high negatives are such a problem.

At the end of the day, for better and for worse, what most voters care about is themselves, their own lives and their families. Obama's challenge is not to convince them to change their minds about race, or racism, but to put themselves first. With the price of gas approaching five dollars, unemployment at record highs, the war dragging on and the housing market slumping, taking race into account might just be a luxury that less well-off Americans, who are the ones most likely to do it, simply can't afford.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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