Sunday, October 12, 2008

Race Creeps Into Race

As we've been discussing all week in Intro, the issue of race in the presidential campaign seems to be making inroads during these final weeks.

McCain has treated the subject of race gingerly, moving quickly to reject loaded remarks by some supporters while at other times accusing the Obama campaign of "playing the race card" and claiming racism to avoid legitimate criticism.

Obama, meanwhile, has made a studied effort to avoid bringing race to the forefront throughout the general election. After giving one major address on race during the primaries, he raised the subject only obliquely over the summer, saying he expected his rivals to note that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills."

Yet allies of the campaigns and activists on both sides have increasingly strayed outside the unofficial boundaries. At two McCain rallies last week, individuals introducing the candidate referred to the Democratic nominee as "Barack Hussein Obama," emphasizing his middle name. Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating called him a "man of the street."

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, said Obama was "palling around with terrorists," a reference to his association with the 1960s radical William Ayers, and a turn of phrase that critics said was racially loaded.

On the other side of the aisle, in September, two Democratic state legislators in Ohio caused an uproar when they accused independents who support McCain of doing so because they are racist.

Another debate which we also discussed in class was the so-called "Bradley Effect" in polling and whether voters will "lie" to pollsters about their voting preferences based on race.

The [Bradley Effect] got its name a generation ago, after former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley (D), an African American, lost the 1982 gubernatorial race in California despite leading his white opponent in the polls on the eve of the election. Some experts suspected at the time that a portion of white voters, reluctant to appear biased, had essentially lied to pollsters about which candidate they were supporting. But whether Bradley lost because of hidden racism has never been clear.

"I'm one of those who believe the Bradley effect is alive and well," said Michael Dawson, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago. It may have diminished with time, he contends, but has not disappeared.

There is little doubt that the willingness of white people to vote for a black candidate has grown measurably. A December 2007 Gallup poll found that 5 percent of white respondents said they would not vote for a black candidate for president. In 1958, Gallup determined that 58 percent of whites would not cast a ballot for a black presidential candidate, and as late as 1989, 19 percent said the same.

Experts agree that it is often difficult to fully tease out the extent to which race plays a factor in voting decisions. People can be reluctant to talk about their racial attitudes, and plenty of reasons -- party, age, experience, political philosophy -- can explain why voters may support or oppose a black candidate.
In fact, it could even be argued that there might be a "reverse Bradley effect" where people are reluctant to express their racial attitudes in a positive or contrarian way, particularly in areas of the country where racial hostility is more problematic for both black and white. In other words, in some areas of the country a white supporter of Obama's may be just as reluctant as an African-American supporter of McCain's to express support for the candidate in polls.
Among the non-Bradley factors at the intersection of race and polling is something called the reverse Bradley (perhaps more prevalent than the Bradley), in which polls understate support for a black candidate, particularly in regions where it is socially acceptable to express distrust of blacks. Then there are the voters not captured by polls. Research shows that those who refuse to participate in surveys tend to be less likely to vote for a black candidate. The race of the questioner, too, affects a poll — but no one is sure whether people give more or less accurate answers when they’re interviewed by someone of their own race.

The trouble is, “We don’t know that doing white-on-white interviews and black-on-black interviews would be more accurate,” said Jon Krosnick, a professor of psychology and political science at Stanford. “It is possible that right now the social norms within the African-American community are such that if you’re going to vote for McCain, it’s too embarrassing to admit, and if you’re not going to vote at all, it’s almost as embarrassing.”
Either way, take these polls with a grain of salt. While pollsters have refined methodologies over the years, we really don't know what will happen, and the effect of race on the final outcome, until after the election is held.

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