Friday, May 23, 2008

Barack Obama's Racial Challenge

Newsweek's new poll indicates that Barack Obama badly lags behind John McCain in support from white voters:

Even as he closes in on the Democratic nomination for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama is facing lingering problems winning the support of white voters--including some in his own party. In a new NEWSWEEK Poll of registered voters, Obama trails presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain 40 percent to 52 percent among whites. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's challenger for the Democratic nomination, also trails McCain among white voters but by a smaller margin, 44 percent to 48 percent. (For the complete results, click here).

Among voters overall, however, Obama fares better, tying McCain 46 percent to 46 percent in a hypothetical match-up. (That's down slightly, within the margin of error, from the last NEWSWEEK Poll, conducted in late April, in which Obama led McCain 47 percent to 44 percent). In that contest, he is boosted by a strong showing among nonwhites, leading McCain 68 percent to 25 percent (Clinton leads McCain 65 percent to 25 percent among nonwhites). But even this result shows some of the electoral challenges facing Obama in a year when Democrats generally appear to hold an electoral advantage--boasting a 15 point advantage in generic party identification over Republicans, 53 percent to 38 percent. Clinton fares slightly better against McCain: 48 percent to 44 percent (within the margin of error). She enjoys this slight edge even though Obama leads Clinton 50 percent to 42 percent as the choice of registered Democrats for the party's nomination. Clinton's white support is unusually high: at a comparable point in the 2004 election, Democratic nominee John Kerry received the support of 36 percent of white voters, compared to George W. Bush's 48 percent, and in June of 2000, Bush led Al Gore 48 percent to 39 percent.

Obama's race may well explain his difficulty in winning over white voters. In the NEWSWEEK Poll, participants were asked to answer questions on a variety of race-related topics including racial preferences, interracial marriage, attitudes toward social welfare and general attitudes toward African-Americans. Respondents were grouped according to their answers on a "Racial Resentment Index." Among white Democrats with a low Racial Resentment Index rating, Obama beat McCain in a hypothetical match-up 78 percent to 17 percent. That is virtually identical to Clinton's margin in the category, 79 percent to 13 percent. But among white Democrats with high scores on the Racial Resentment Index, the picture was very different: Obama led McCain by only 18 points (51 to 33) while Clinton maintained a much larger 59-point lead (78 to 18).Who exactly are these high Racial Resentment Index voters? A majority, 61 percent, have less than a four-year college education, many are older (44 percent were over the age of 60 compared to just 18 percent under the age of 40) and nearly half (46 percent) live in the South.

Confusion over Obama's religious background may also be hindering his ability to attract white support. Asked to name Obama's faith, 58 percent of participants said Christian (the correct answer), compared with 11 percent who answered Muslim, 22 percent who did not know and 9 percent who said something else. Obama's name could be contributing to the confusion; 18 percent of white Democratic voters say they judge the Illinois senator less favorably because of his name, compared to only 4 percent of white Democrats who say it makes them judge Obama more favorably.

While the NEWSWEEK Poll clearly suggests a lurking racial bias in the American electorate, the role of race in presidential politics may be diminishing. In 2000, only 37 percent of voters thought the country was ready for a black president. Now, 70 percent of voters think a black candidate like Obama could win the White House.
I've written quite a bit on the thesis of racial resentment. See, for example, "Barack Obama and the Political Psychology of Race."