Electability and the race factor


This is a very sensitive issue, but it needs to be discussed. When the unpledged Democratic superdelegates finally look hard at the electability factor, they will be compelled to judge whether Barack Obama would be a risky nominee because of his race.

In the end, this may not be a deal breaker. But right now it can hardly be ignored – not after what we learned in Pennsylvania, where, according to the final exit polls, 12 percent of white Democratic primary voters said that race mattered in their choice of candidate...and, of those whites, a whopping 76 percent chose Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama.

Think about that for a moment. If 12 percent of the white Pennsylvania Democratic electorate – in a closed primary, with no independent or Republican participants – were willing to tell exit pollsters eye to eye that race was an important factor, to Obama’s detriment, then it’s fair to surmise that the real percentage, recorded in private behind drawn curtains, was surely higher.

This race factor didn’t just surface for the first time in Pennsylvania; a similar, but less precise, statistic was recorded on March 4 in Ohio. In that primary, the exit polls reported that 20 percent of all Democratic voters saw race as important to their choice...and six in 10 of those voters picked Clinton over Obama.

A Democratic victory in November may well hinge on who wins the working-class whites in the Rustbelt states, and there will be much superdelegate chatter (though little of it in public) over whether Obama’s "post-racial" message can sufficiently resonate with those voters - especially after the flap involving Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Unfortunately for Obama, his former pastor has opted to spend his early retirement on the public circuit, chatting with Bill Moyers, addressing the NAACP in Detroit last night, and holding forth this morning at the National Press Club. (Bill Clinton's chatter has hurt Hillary during this campaign, but, potentially, he's chump change compared to how Wright's chatter could damage Obama.)

Superdelegates don’t want to believe in the Bradley Effect – so named for the black Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, who in 1982 was thought to be a shoo-in for California governor until the election returns rolled in. They might prefer to believe in the Wilder Effect, so named for black Virginia gubernatorial candidate Doug Wilder, who was expected on election eve to win by 10 points but wound up winning by less than one. The basic theory is that a lot of whites will want to sound enlightened when talking to pollsters, but will yield to their baser instincts when alone in booth.

So I was curious how Obama would address that issue during his Sunday interview on Fox News, since it would surely come up. And it did. Chris Wallace cited the aforementioned Pennsylvania primary figures, and asked whether such sentiments impeded his "post-racial" message – and, presumably, his candidacy.

He immediately responded with an evasion: "Look at the general election polls. We are doing better against John McCain than Senator Clinton is."

Wallace asked about the worrisome results of an actual election that had just taken place, but Obama wanted to talk about the polls for an election that is still seven months away. He implied, in his response, that these polls are reliable indicators of November strength. But what worries some Democrats is that Obama’s poll numbers may overstate his actual performance once the votes are finally counted.

On Fox News Sunday, Obama never did address that Pennsylvania statistic. He settled on a simple optimistic assertion, without explaining his grounds for optimism: "Is race still a factor in our society? Yes. I don’t think anybody would deny that. Is it going to be the determining factor in a general election? No....What (people) are looking for is somebody who can solve their problems (and) pull the country together....I don’t think race is going to be a barrier in the general election."

But the race factor, which so many Democrats are loathe to contemplate, will loom even larger (at least backstage) if Obama loses big among the white working-class voters of Indiana, Kentucky, and West Virginia. And if some of those voters are wondering whether Obama ever sought out Rev. Wright to protest any of his sermons, it’s doubtful that the candidate allayed their concerns yesterday.

When Wallace asked Obama whether he had ever stated any objections to Wright, Obama evasively replied: "Keep in mind, it’s not as if his sermons were constantly political." So he never answered the question.

And so the unpledged superdelegates will continue to squirm. They may ultimately decide, arguably for good reason, that the Bradley Effect does not apply to Obama. But there are also these words, from the famed essayist Henry David Thoreau, writing in 1854: "Public opinion is a weak tyrant, compared with our own private opinion."

Speaking of Wright, he got off a good line this morning at the National Press Club. When asked whether he was sufficiently patriotic, he replied, "I served six years in the military. Does that make me patriotic? How many years did Cheney serve?"

And speaking of Indiana, it has been noted lately that the Hoosiers haven’t hosted a meaningful Democratic primary since 1968, when Robert Kennedy successfully battled Eugene McCarthy and a favorite son, Indiana Gov. Roger Branigan. I just ran across this anecdote about RFK:

While addressing an audience of white, affluent medical students at the University of Indiana, Kennedy spoke at length about the importance of providing better health care for the poor. An angry student challenged him, "Where are you going to get all the money for these federally subsidized programs you’re talking about?"

RFK’s instant retort: "From you."

The audience booed. Whereupon he proceeded to quote a French existentialist named Albert Camus: "If you do not do this, who will do this?"

Can you imagine any candidate replying in that fashion today?