It All Comes Down to Race

Sasha Issenberg, Slate, June 1, 2012

The wishful scenario many Republicans envisioned after Barack Obama’s change of heart this month on gay marriage—the president’s African-American base, far less supportive of expanding marriage than other parts of his coalition, becomes demobilized or even defects as a result of Obama’s stance—already seems unlikely to be realized. Last Thursday, Public Policy Polling revealed a 36-point swing in black support for gay marriage among Maryland voters, who will have the chance to legalize the practice in a November referendum, since PPP’s last poll on the subject in March. Then, 56 percent had been opposed to the new marriage law and 39 percent supported it. In May, PPP found the numbers nearly reversed: 55 percent supported, and 36 opposed. By all indications, black voters weren’t abandoning Obama over an issue on which they disagreed, but adjusting their opinions to match his.

That notion—that our views toward Obama are stable and everything else is changing around them—has been at the core of Michael Tesler’s groundbreaking survey research throughout the Obama era. Last week, as PPP tracked opinion in Maryland, the Brown University political scientist was reviewing his own national polls conducted since Obama’s switch, which helped moor the movement on gay marriage in a broader, deeper set of attitudes. Not only was Obama’s support pulling blacks toward his position, it was also pushing a segment of whites whom Tesler categorized as “racial conservatives” away from his position. In other words, Obama had such sway over race-conscious voters that they adjusted their positions on gay marriage because of him.

If Tesler was surprised by this, it was only because he believed views on gay marriage would be some of the most stable in politics, deeply anchored in moral values. Since 2009, Tesler has been chronicling what he calls the “racialization” of issues in the Obama era—the extent to which public opinion on topics unrelated to race have taken on a racial cast as Obama has staked out positions on them. Tesler has used polling experiments to identify a series of issues that have become enmeshed in complicated racial attitudes by dint of Obama’s association with them: health care reform, taxes, the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Even Bo Obama fell into this matrix; racists looked less favorably on a picture of the president’s dog when they learned the identity of his owner. That part, too, surprised Tesler. “I thought people would have stronger views about dogs than politics,” he said.

{snip} Tesler’s body of research suggests that instead of delivering what many suggested would be a post-racial presidency, Obama will have polarized corners of American politics previously untouched by race. Not only have racial considerations affected whether voters will support Obama, but they are beginning to renovate the entire architecture of public opinion.

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The latest issue to fall into this pattern is gay marriage, although PPP’s Maryland findings seem to confirm that racialization can work in multiple directions. Tesler has repeatedly found that the polarization he has documented is partly a function of the voters he describes as “racial liberals”—those who score low on the resentment battery, a category that includes blacks and progressive whites—being more likely to support a policy when they learn that Obama does, too.

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