With polls showing the presidential contest between John McCain and Barack Obama getting closer, a question is now looming larger and larger. Is skin color going to be the deciding factor?
Just last week, Sen. Obama warned voters that Sen. McCain’s campaign will exploit the race issue by telling voters that “he doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.” A few weeks earlier, he said they will attack his lack of experience but also added, “And did I mention he’s black?”
The McCain campaign did not counter the first punch, but after last week’s jab—fearing that Mr. Obama was getting away with calling his candidate a racist—campaign manager Rick Davis responded to the dollar-bill attack by saying, “Barack Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It’s divisive, negative, shameful and wrong.”
Mr. Obama’s campaign concedes it has no clear example of a Republican attack that expressly cites Mr. Obama’s name or race. Yet in the last few days some Obama supporters were at it again, suggesting that a McCain ad attacking Mr. Obama as little more than a “celebrity,” by featuring young white women such as Britney Spears, is an appeal to white anxiety about black men and white women.
The race issue is clearly not going away. And the key reason—to be blunt—is because there is no telling how many white voters are lying to pollsters when they say they plan to vote for a black man to be president. Still, it is possible to look elsewhere in the polling numbers to see where white voters acknowledge their racial feelings and get a truer measure of racism.
Consider also a recent Washington Post poll. Thirty percent of all voters admitted to racial prejudice, and more than a half of white voters categorized Mr. Obama as “risky” (two-thirds judged Mr. McCain the “safe” choice). Yet about 90% of whites said they would be “comfortable” with a black president. And about a third of white voters acknowledged they would not be “entirely comfortable” with an African-American president. Why the contradictory responses? My guess is that some whites are not telling the truth about their racial attitudes.
A recent New York Times poll found that only 31% of white voters said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama. That compares to 83% of blacks with a favorable opinion. This is a huge, polarizing differential.