The Elephant in the Room


Well, Obama is back in the lead. The poll of polls on RealClearPolitics shows a 2 point lead. It would appear the Palin effect is subsiding. Not surprising, considering her reluctance to do press interviews after her mediocre performance with Charlie Gibson is raising questions. The most significant factor, however, is the financial crisis engulfing Wall Street coupled with a seemingly confused John McCain. It goes a long way toward explaining Obama’s rise in the polls.

The Democratic candidate has shown greater energy and aggressiveness in communicating his economic message and has shifted from his temporary Palin obsession to get back on message. After all, it’s his campaign that is about his change, not hers. McCain and the GOP gambled they change the election dynamic from experience versus change to one where McCain is once again the maverick reformer, and Palin just made the change more apparent. It was smart politics, even if it smacks of cynicism. (Read conservative columnist David Brooks’s take in the NY Times.)

Still, this was supposed to be the ‘slam dunk’ election year of the Democrats. An unpopular president, a failing economy, inconclusive war efforts compromising US interests elsewhere, growing pessimism about the country’s direction, struggling American families losing their homes and facing reduced economic opportunity — all of this was supposed to be enough to make the November result easy to predict. Add to this that no one believes the Republicans will capture either of the two Houses, and Obama should have been coasting to an easy victory. You would think he’d be 8 or 10 points ahead. Well, think again.

Some of Obama’s struggles are related to the candidate himself. Daring to take on the vaunted Clinton machine before he was even a full-term senator was enough to raise doubts about Obama. This blog has always maintained that doubt was his biggest adversary. He has run an outstanding campaign so far — calm and steady throughout. It’s a reflection of the Illinois senator’s temperament and a hint of the kind of president he might be. And with three debates on the horizon, the Democratic candidate can go a long to dissipate some of the doubt and close the deal. Except it may not be enough.

Few doubt Obama’s intelligence or his talent. His stance on Iraq and his choice of Biden go a long way to show his judgement on the tough calls. Yet, there is an elephant in the room and I am not referring to the Republican symbol. Over the weekend, an AP-Yahoo News poll revealed that one third of white Democrats harbor a negative view of blacks and this probably explains why the deal is not closed. The survey also revealed doubts about Obama on non-racial issues, but the race factor is real and cannot be ignored with less than 50 days to go.

When I was in New Hampshire last January, some white Democrats told me that Obama spoke above the racial issue, that he was a uniter, that he went beyond the culture wars that have so dominated and divided US politics since the late 60’s. Even the Reverend Wright episode was not enough to bring race to the forefront for long. Obama’s More Perfect Union speech reinforced his candidacy as something different, new and refreshing. But that was the Democratic primary and while it was bruising, it did not invoke the culture wars of the past. A general election is a different reality. Obama needs to perform well in the debates to reduce the doubt about his person. But will it be enough to get the elephant out of the room?

Back in the 80’s, we were introduced to the Bradley effect when Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles ran for the governorship of California. Bradley had a comfortable lead in the polls throughout the campaign, but lost the election by a narrow margin, proving no pollster can really predict how race will play out in political campaigns. In my view, the current lead is too small to offset a contemporary Bradley effect. Obama must hit hard in the weeks ahead to make this an election of change on the economy. And he must hope that America is ready to take its next big step forward.


The Elephant in the Room

  1. “Few doubt Obama’s intelligence or his talent.”

    Do you have an editor? You link to a poll that shows that less than half US voters support Obama and write about how he’s underperforming the Dem brand but than claim few doubt his intelligence and talent. Do you actually think about your argument before writing or do you make it up as you go along.

    Obama is a marxist at heart and is constantly telling white working class people they are racists who cling to god and guns. If you think that’s ‘intelligent’, I would have to disagree.

    And the Bradley effect cuts both ways. Sure, there might be some people who won’t vote for him because of his colour but the only reason he’s Dem nominee is because of his colour.

    Does anyone seriously believe if he was Barry Dunham, a white guy with same experience and background as Obama, he would be anywhere near where he is now. Or switch colours, McCain is black and Obama is white but everything else is the same – who do you think would be currently ahead in the polls?

    And what about all the black people who are going to vote for Obama solely because of his colour. Are they racist?

  2. What’s the problem jwl, are the polls giving you a headache?

    Is watching Palin crash and burn with the American public painful?

    Is it difficult seeing state by state move to the blue column?

    Is the best you can do to lash out and call Obama a Marxist?

  3. jwl, what are you on? If McCain were black, he would never have won the Republican nomination – and if you don’t believe that then nothing you have to say is credible.

  4. Gentry

    I believe the U.S. election is going to be really close. I think less than 10 electoral college votes is going to separate the two candidates after all the ballots are counted but it depends on my mood when predicting who’s going to win. Sometimes I think Obama, sometimes McCain. It’s a toss up really.

    I don’t like McCain, he’s not very conservative, but I think Palin is great. I think it would be in Palin’s interest to lose this election, let Obama reveal himself to be another Jimmy Carter, and then in 4 years she will be Repub presidential nominee and will destroy Barry in 2012 election.


    The repub party made significant efforts to get Colin Powell to run for pres in ’96 because they thought he would be great candidate. Powell declined because his wife supposedly thought he would be assassinated. The repub party has plenty of ethnic minorities within its ranks so I am not sure what your point is.

  5. jwl, I understand it’s difficult for you to be forced into this humiliating climbdown on McCain, but I don’t believe for a second that you’re this dispassionate about it, not given your foaming-at-the-mouth tirades about Palin, and calling Obama a Bolshevik and a Marxist etc.

    Your opinion that this election is a toss-up is in the minority, and in fact Palin has done much to contribute to Obama’s now-decisive advantage – in fundraising, in opinion polling, and finally in driving the last undecided Clinton supporters, offended at the GOP wishing to draw parallels between her and Palin, firmly into the Obama camp.

    I also find it amusing that you’re already looking forward to 2012 re: Palin. Leaving aside the GOP tendency to nominate guys “whose turn it is”, rather than upstarts, there’s nothing that leads me to believe that Palin is capable of organizing and running the type of campaign that would lead to the nomination, let alone one that would give her victory against an Obama armed with the incumbency advantage.

    The real question of this election is becoming, can the Democrats attain 60 Senate seats? Then we could count on some serious positive change finally coming to the US after 8 years of utterly corrupt Republican mismanagement.

  6. It’s a bit of a stretch to call the New York Times’ David Brooks a conservative. I think having worked at the NY Times all these years, he’s crossed over to the dark side. William Kristol sure, but not Brooks. But the rest of the analysis seems pretty accurate to me.

    On paper, Palin is as qualified as Obama. We also have to remember that he’s actually running for President while she’s not. She’s a woman though, so the media kicks the tires a little bit more in her case. Her test comes in 10 days, if she holds Biden to a draw or beats him in the debates, she’ll lift the ticket again. When was the last time a VP nominee was so influential in a race?

    I agree with jwl that this will be a nail-biter on election night unlike the Canadian election where who’ll be the winner is already a foregone conclusion.

    My own sense is that Obama, like so many recent Democratic presidential hopefuls, is too far to the left of the American electorate to prevail at the end of the day. He’s further to the left of Kerry, Gore, Dukakis, Mondale, Carter. He’s a toss up with McGovern. McGovern, to jog people’s memories, went over like a lead balloon with the American electorate loosing the electoral college 520 – 17.

  7. I live in the states, there is a bit of nuance in this election… McCain is the one republican who could actually win this election – in fact many party die hards hate McCain- and it is well known that McCain hates GW Bush. Alongside this, Obama is pretty green. But McCain blew it by choosing Palin, an extreme candidate who can only appeal to the base. So Obama will win, by a decisive margin too, just you wait.

    But McCain is a good guy, he really is. He isn’t Bush. Had we elected McCain in 2000, the world would be a much different place.

    My state California will go with Obama btw.

  8. “So Obama will win, by a decisive margin too, just you wait.”


    Living in the states doesn’t make you an expert Michelle. If Obama wins, it’ll with less than 25 electoral votes. I think there’s a pretty wide consensus on that.

  9. Sarah Palin drew a crowd of 60,000 today in Florida. Boy did McCain ever screw up by picking her as his VP nominee.

    She is a political dynamo folks. I don’t think even the great Obama could get 60,000 in one place in the sunshine state.

  10. Maybe they just wanted to find out what Bristol is planning to name her kid?

  11. Anyone who thinks that a liberal black man can easily become the president of the United States is naive, quite frankly. They either haven’t been around very long or are candyland-shoots-in-ladders-idealists. Let me make it real plain and simple for you…

    The word liberal is a dirty word in American politics. When the Nancy Pelosi’s and Howard Dean’s of the world have to use a euphemism to describe their political philosophy… “progressive”…. they’re in for an uphill battle for the presidency. If you can’t call yourself what you actually are without facing a political backlash, how can you possibly expect to win a nationwide presidential race? America is a right-leaning country and any democratic candidate has to be a moderate in order to win the electoral college. Liberals do not win nationwide elections.

    Secondly, and not the least of all important, racism is real and didn’t magically disappear from this country. The wide-eyed dreamers who casually blow it off are in for a rude awakening. Even if racism isn’t as overt as it once was, white America still holds many subconscious (and sometimes conscious) prejudices that are reinforced by the mainstream media and pop culture every day. Deep-seated white tribalism has existed in this country since it’s founding. Many whites can only envision a fellow Anglo-Saxon as leader of the free world. It wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest to see a percentage of white democrats side with their race over their party. I’m sure the same can be said for blacks in regards to Obama… problem for him is, whites vastly outnumber blacks in this country (hence the term “minority”). If a significant number of white democrats do indeed side with their race over their party, Obama has no chance. It may not even be close. When you consider the fact that Tom Bradley (the popular black mayor of Los Angeles who ran for governor in ’80’s and gave the name to the “Bradley Effect”) encountered this scenario in the bluest of blue states, you better believe it will happen in battleground states as well… no matter whether the year is ’82, ’92, ’02, ’12, or ’22. I personally have seen a lot of it. Many of the young people I know (I’m only 26… but am a history fanatic) that are supposed die-hard Obama supporters have told me that they aren’t really going to vote for him because they “don’t trust him”… even though they completely share his ideology and back all of his policies. Some have told me that they’ll cross party lines and vote for McCain because they can “trust him” even though they are at odds with his political beliefs and others have told me that they won’t even vote on election day because of intrinsic white tribalism that they can’t even begin to understand. It’s a myth that young people aren’t prejudiced. They are simply more adept at hiding it because racism has never been socially acceptable within their lifetime…. but the same exact prejudices have been pounded into their subconscious minds ever since they were kids thru media and pop culture. They really don’t have a choice in the matter. The trick is being able to recognize what is really going on. Racism and prejudice will affect a percentage of white democrats (and possibly Latinos and Asians as well), how many, we do not know but just because we wish it away doesn’t make it so.

    The fact that Obama has not been able to gain a substantial advantage over McCain at anytime during the election season, considering the favorable circumstances, goes to show that there is something under the surface that has yet to manifest itself. I think most democrats are unwilling to admit that this country leans to the center-right politicly. There is no euphemism for conservative. However, I believe racism will be a fundamental obstacle that Obama will have to overcome if he wants to take residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in the Fall. At worst, it’s possible that he could lose any state where he doesn’t hold a double-digit lead in the polls…

    I’m sure that the conservatives that are reading this are freaking out saying that they have enough reasons not to vote for Obama… and aren’t racists… which I agree with. This message is not directed to you. This is a warning to democrats who are thinking about joining you… democrats who are seriously considering, or even determined to vote against a candidate that completely shares their ideology just because he doesn’t share their skin color. These people do exist and are out there. Reality is often harsh, cold and unfair but it is the truth. Those unwilling to acknowledge it are in for a rude awakening come election day. The more light that is shed on it, the better. Conservatives should be all for that as well. After all, if McCain does win, the topic of racism in the media will get awfully tired awfully fast if this issue is completely ignored.

  12. Let’s just say things the way they are, both candidates are not coming up with any resolutions to any of the problems, and at times it loks as if Carl Rove is running both campaigns.

    And the 2 main reasons why this election is not the blowout which it should be for the Democratic candidate, is because Obama:
    1) is black
    2) had to look like a leftist extremist in order to win the primaries to be in this election in the first place, which throws off many independants.

    After all had this been a regular election year where the Dems believed the most important thing was to have a candidate whom is qualified and has the best chance to win it would’ve been a Clinton blowout right now.

    However, the poor economy, a war that was going bad and all these other problems going on during a GOP presidency and a 2006 Midterm election blowout, made the extreme left believe that their candidate had a chance, which indeed he does and wouldn’t under any other circumstances.

  13. First: The elephant in the room in this election as in every other facet in life is the ‘unexpected’.

    Second: Both candidates were weak on the events of the past week. Keep in mind that McCain introduced legislation TWO Years ago insisting on greater insight over the 2 MACS. How many Dems backed it?

    Three: John was right that Obama is capitalizing intelligently from Palin’s dimming glow. How do we know that it isn’t part of the strategy to reduce her exposure until the time is right. Let’s reserve judgement until the V.P. debates.

    Four: Why has Obama resisted in debating McCain on a weakly basis leading up to the election. This frustrates me as I’m always open to finding holes in my own arguements.

    As for the backbiting, both candidates make me sick.

  14. Jwl- I guess any idiot can be the President of the Law Review. You exemplify what is wrong with Conservative critics today- you insult rather than debate- just like McCain.

  15. I agree with John and Michael: race is an issue and it is indeed naive to believe racism is dead and buried. In fact, I suspect many older Dems openly support Obama, but won’t be able to bring themselves to vote for him.

    Being black may not be the greatest obstacle that Obama must overcome to win the presidency, but it’s definitely a factor.

  16. Even if we allow that some people won’t vote for Obama because of his race (just like people weren’t going to vote for Kennedy because he was Catholic), there is an opposite effect of Obama motivating people to vote *because* of his race, mostly African Americans and youth – groups that, not coincidentally, have been subject to repeated and systemic attempts at voter suppression and exclusion by the GOP.

    The real question isn’t whether there are people who will vote against Obama because of his race – of course there are. The question is whether such people are likely to lie about their voting intention to pollsters, and there simply is no evidence to support such a contention. During the entire Democratic primary, polls were quite accurate in predicting Obama’s tally. Even the most famous surprise, New Hampshire, was actually due to Clinton’s number being predicted as too low.

    Most of the comments here expounding on the issue of race in this election are preferring to rely on their own impressions about the issue rather than referring to verifiable and conclusive statistical information. It’s as if they think their own casual observation of the race can trump the collective wisdom of Obama’s entire campaign.

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