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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

When Exit Polls become Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

In recent weeks my own naiveté, hallmark of the Obama faithful, encouraged me to reject punditry and accept the notion that despite the contentious battle for the Democratic nomination, there was a good chance that Democrats would be united in their support for the eventual nominee come November. And for at least one side of the intra-party divide, that seems to be the case. The number of Obama supporters who will vote for Hillary Clinton has remained relatively stable over the last major contests with nearly 70% pledging their support for either candidate come fall. Indiana and North Carolina, however, reveal a troubling trend for the party that the media and blogosphere has increasingly seized upon since the PA primary. In both states, though more-so in North Carolina, a minority of Clinton supporters said they would vote for Obama in a November match up against John McCain. I find credence in the position that these polls represent little more than temporary hurt feelings (if Obama fans are naïve, Clinton fans need to work through their sense of entitlement). Unfortunately, I’m also persuaded by the notion that, white Democrats, once again, are demonstrating an unwillingness to embrace any presidential candidate who might appear to serve the interests of African Americans, no matter how effectively his/her policy prescriptions will address the issues most important to middle to low income white voters. We tend to describe this voting bloc as “Reagan Democrats” who, it can be argued, rejected Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale because of the Democratic Party’s implicit ties to Civil Rights liberalism and Reagan’s effective exploitation of white resentment of welfare policies and growing fears of black inner city criminality. This strategy merged with and was eventually overtaken by Gingrich’s Contract with America which emphasized religio-cultural issues once the Clinton Administration bowed to pressure and eliminated federal welfare. Now with Obama on the ballot and the Rev. Wright media circus labeling him, at last, indisputably black, the part of the Reagan Democrat coalition animated by now four decades of held over anti-black resentment has reasserted itself.

Annoyingly, ironically, but totally unsurprisingly, it is African American voters who the media has accused of dividing the party along racial lines. Fair enough African Americans are voting for Obama by over 90% and represent a huge chunk of his support in nearly every primary election he has won. Yet white commentators, barely constrained by the shackles of political correctness and the black intelligentsia, a class always eager to tell less than successful African Americans exactly what’s wrong with them, have begun to critic African American’s unanimous support for the first African American with a serious chance to win the presidency. Noted black political scientist, Michael Dawson, for example, recently likened African American excitement over Obama to a kind of mass psychosis. However, as we know from exit polls, it is also evident that African Americans have little problem voting for Hillary Clinton. This should surprise no one. During the Lewinsky scandal, African American voters closed ranks around the Clintons. When Monica and her blue dress appeared on CNN, African Americans activated a long standing historical tradition wherein the private sexual foibles of our loved ones (Uncle Adam and his “friend” Steve) or community leaders (insert philandering black pastor joke here) are merely integrated into our overall sense of their personhood (“he/she just like that”). Bill Clinton did more than pander to African Americans, he became, for many black voters, a presidential version of the one white kid you see hanging out in otherwise majority black social spaces (something much different than the suburban white kids who wear hoodies, purchase hip hop and are frightened to go to “that” side of town). When Hillary Clinton spoke of the vast right wing conspiracy she both joined an ongoing conversation within black barbershops about the ever present and shifting “man” determined to exclude African Americans from political power in the United States and positioned herself and her husband as victims of that “man”. African Americans, in response, circled the wagons and have remained loyal to Democrats regardless of race, except in 2004 when John Kerry managed to inspire no one.

White democrats over the last thirty five years however, have rarely exhibited similar political or social flexibility when it comes to race relations. When white Democrats in industrial towns were told they needed to release their stranglehold on racially segregated neighborhoods and open access to good paying jobs they responded by voting en masse for George Wallace in the 1972 Democratic Primary and defecting to Richard Nixon’s presidential bid in November. Over the last 12 years working class white voters have been the spoiled darlings of both political parties, and they seem to know it. So used to being pandered to from the Right and the Center Right, the notion that they will not be able to reverse the will of the African American, young and liberal wings of the party has caused an emotional maelstrom that can best be described as race-pouting. While African Americans turn out in record numbers to support southern Democrats in house elections, like Travis Childers (who distanced himself from Obama) fickle, barely loyal, working class white voters threaten with increasing urgency that they will vote for McCain over Obama come November.

There’s a chance my racially colored social lens has biased my interpretation of events, but when Obama and Hillary agree on 95% of policy, how can we explain these astonishing exit poll numbers? Let’s just take crossover Republicans out of the equation at this point. We can say that age and experience drives these voters towards John McCain, except that many of them voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and Obama is running a new version of that campaign in 2008. I also think if polled, without Obama in the equation, many “experience” voters would choose less experienced candidates than Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfield for public office at overwhelming rates. We can’t say it’s “character” issues. Even in states where she emerges victorious, more voters find Barack Obama honest, more feel he shares their values and a majority claim that Rev. Wright doesn’t mean very much to them. As controls continue to eliminate other possibilities, racism gains a greater share of the explanatory force behind these exit poll numbers. A large percentage of white Democrats seem unwilling to imagine a black man in the white house.

Yet watch the media over the next few months. If Obama fails to win in November he will be blamed for not “reaching out” to white, “working” (read respectable) people. Already Clinton has linked her support among white voters with the support of the “hardworking Americans,” do non-white folks not have multiple jobs and work for non-living wages all of a sudden? The right belabors the impact of politically correct, multiculturalist rhetoric on their ability to “call it like it is” in relation to black America. Few, however, have recognized that the flip side of political correctness is our inability to call a spade a spade in the national media without upsetting the gentle sensibilities of white voters.