Recent events - Reverend Jeremiah Wright's mass media debut and 's speech about race in response - have focused the political spotlight on Obama's race and its role in the Democratic primary contest, and potentially the general election. What few are talking about, however, is how race was, and has been, an issue to voters in this contest long before Reverend Wright was a household name.
Since Super Tuesday, when a question about the candidates' race was first added to the exit polls, there has been a demonstrable connection between the issue of race, less-educated white voters, and their choice of. More recent polling on race by the CBS News Poll also supports this connection.
Significantly, this pattern of support for Clinton among less educated white voters has been consistent throughout the primary season, starting with New Hampshire and lasting through to Ohio and Texas, in states as diverse as Missouri and California, in states she lost by sizable margins as well as those she won in landslides.
There is no evidence that racial animosity or "racism" is, or has been, at work in Democratic primary voting. What there is evidence of is the existence of candidates' race as an important issue for some Democratic primary voters. It is an issue that seems to give them pause in supporting Obama in the primaries.
Clinton has consistently won the votes of less educated (high school education or less) white voters - an important part of the Democratic Party's base of support. In New Hampshire, the first primary, Clinton won 39 percent of white voters as a group, but 49 percent of less educated white voters, beating Obama among this group by 19 points. As recently as the Ohio primary, the results were similar - Clinton beat Obama by 57 points among less educated white Democrats in Ohio, versus the 30-point advantage she enjoyed among all whites in the state.
This support is not limited to states Clinton has won. Even in states Obama has won by large margins, Clinton has managed to retain an advantage among these voters. In Obama's home state of Illinois, where he bested Clinton by an overwhelming 32 points - 65 percent to 33 percent - carrying white voters overall, with 56 percent support, less educated white Democrats still went for Clinton. She won 55 percent of this group's vote, among the highest support she received from any demographic group in Illinois, having lost most other groups, even within her base (for example white women and voters over 60) to Obama.
In fact, while much has been made about white males' preference for Obama in the primary elections, among less educated whites there is not a consistent preference gap between men and women. For example, in Ohio Clinton won equal proportions of less educated white men and women, 78 percent and 77 percent respectively.
The consistency with which less educated white voters have supported Clinton, even in contests where other portions of her base deserted her, makes the group unique. Perhaps it should come as little surprise then that some of their social views also separate them from many Democrats. Of central interest is their views on race and their willingness to support a black candidate.
The exit polls have been asking Democratic primary voters about the importance of candidate race in their vote since the Super Tuesday contests. The proportion of Democratic primary voters who have said race was important to their vote has rarely been more than one-quarter of any state's electorate, making it easy to overlook. In addition, the specific exit poll question does not ask voters which direction candidate race swayed their vote.
Precisely because it does not explicitly ask the direction of candidate race's influence, it ended up measuring both directions - one for whites, and a different one for blacks. For example, in Missouri, some black primary voters may have been led to Obama by race - 28 percent of black voters said that candidate race was important to their vote, and 96 percent of them supported Obama. Seventy-eight percent of black voters who said race was not important to their choice also supported Obama.
In contrast, white voters in Missouri who said candidate race was important to their vote choice supported Clinton. Among the 17 percent of white primary voters who said candidate race was important to them Clinton won 65 percent of the vote, versus 49 percent among whites who said race was not important. This pattern repeats itself throughout the primary states - the importance of candidate race as an issue for voters boosting Obama's support among African-Americans while boosting Clinton's support among whites.
Candidate race plays more of a role for some voters than others. Clinton's core support base of less educated whites is one of the groups for whom it plays more of a role. In Missouri, 29 percent of less educated whites said candidate race was an important factor to their vote, while only 10 percent of whites with more than a high school education said the same. Again, this is not an isolated finding: in Connecticut the comparable numbers are 18 percent to 11 percent, and in Ohio, 29 percent to 13 percent.
The finding that less educated whites are hesitant to support black candidates is not new - these attitudes have been evident for decades. A Gallup Poll from 1978 shows that white Democrats with less than a high school diploma (one-third of the sample at that time) were significantly less likely to support a hypothetical black nominee from their own party than were those with more education - 65 percent compared to 82 percent.
This difference has narrowed over time, but was still evident as recently as last year, just before the hypothetical black candidate became a reality. A 2007 Gallup Poll showed that 86 percent of white Democrats with a high school diploma or less expressed willingness to vote for a black candidate, relative to 92 percent of those whites Democrats with more education.
The very real candidacy of Barack Obama seems to be witnessing this same hesitation to support a black candidate among less educated white Democrats. A national CBS News Poll on race from last week reveals that 59 percent of white Democratic primary voters with a high school education or less believe that America is ready for a black president. In contrast, however, over three-quarters of their more educated counterparts think the country is ready - a difference of 15 points.
This belief appears to be impacting candidate preferences. Among less educated, white Democratic primary voters, belief in America's readiness for a black president boosts support for (or reduces opposition to) Obama by 13 points. Thirty-nine percent of those less educated white Democrats who think the country is ready for a black president support Obama, while only 26 percent of those who feel the country is not ready support him. Primary voters with higher levels of education evidence no differences in support for Obama based on whether or not they think the country is ready for a black commander-in-chief.
Candidate race is and has been a clear factor in the Democratic primaries to date, for both white and black voters. While it is clear that the issue matters to a range of voters, less educated whites are among those most affected by candidate race both historically and in this election. They are also a group with whom Obama has been unable to make much headway.
Despite Obama's attempt to defuse the issue of race in his major national address last week, it is unlikely he did so. In a CBS News follow-up survey after Obama's speech, his overall favorability ratings were unchanged, and the speech appeared to have made as many viewers less likely as more likely to support him. While those who followed the speech gave it very positive ratings, alleviating the long-held and entrenched racial concerns of some voters will require much more.