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The Race Factor In The 2008 Presidential Election

Noemie Emery does me the honor of quoting me at length--and improving on my work--in the current Weekly Standard. Like me, she dissents from the view that Barack Obama is being rejected because of his race. Rather, some voters don't like the particular kind of person he is.

Skeptical? Try this thought experiment. How large is the class of American voters who (a) would not have voted for Colin Powell in 1996 (you'd have to look back on fall 1995 polls to get an idea of this) and (b) would not vote for Barack Obama this year? I would submit it is not very large. Virtually all Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were ready to vote for Powell as a Republican against Bill Clinton. Virtually all Democrats and a very large majority of Democratic-leaning independents are ready to vote for Obama this year.

What categories of voters would not have voted or would not vote for either of these two black candidates?

-- Voters who have become more conservative in the intervening 12 years. A small number, I should think: Republicans won a narrow plurality of the popular vote for House of Representatives in 1996; they're not doing that well so far this year, to say the least.

-- Voters who would have chosen Bill Clinton as a check on the Republican Congress in 1996 and would choose John McCain (or a nonvote for Obama) as a check on the Democratic Congress in 2008. Again, a small number. It was far from clear to voters which party would win the House in 1996, while a large majority of voters today believe Democrats will win a majority in the House.

-- Conservatives under the age of 30 who could not vote in 1996. Again, a small number: Polls show the Democrats with a big party identification edge with young voters and Obama with, if anything, a bigger edge in general election pairings.

-- Voters who would have voted for Powell as an independent but not as a Republican in 1996 and would not vote for Obama today. Again, a small group.

-- Voters who will not vote for a black candidate under any circumstances. Given the changing age structure of the population, we have to assume that they are fewer in number and a smaller percentage of the electorate today than in 1996.

My instinct is that the universe of voters who would not vote for either of these two black candidates is considerably less than 10 percent of the total electorate--let's say 6 percent. Voters in the first four of the five categories above are clearly motivated by something other than a refusal to vote for a black candidate under any circumstances. Each may amount to 1 percent or 2 percent of the total electorate. That leaves a vanishingly small percentage of voters unwilling to vote for a black under any circumstances: 1 percent, 2 percent, 3 percent, maybe 4 percent, tops. If you remember what American opinion was in the 1950s, that's a huge contrast.

I can think of two objections to this argument.

First, Colin Powell was not typical of Americans of African descent. He was the son of Jamaican immigrants, a career military officer, a Republican. So willingness to vote for Powell is not a true test of willingness to vote for a black candidate. But the same thing can be said of Obama. He is the son of an African man (not even an immigrant but a visa-holding resident alien) and a white woman, and he was educated at Columbia and Harvard, a law professor (or at least adjunct professor or lecturer). But they're both clearly and proudly (read their widely read autobiographies) of African descent.

John Kennedy was not typical of American Irish Catholics, either. He was the son of a multimillionaire, educated at Harvard, with a sister who was married to the Marquis of Hartington. Nevertheless, there were plainly many more Americans unwilling to vote for a Catholic in 1960 than there are Americans unwilling to vote for a black candidate from 1996 through 2008.

Second, the Bradley effct. Polls in the governors races in California in 1982 and Virginia in 1989 showed black candidates (Tom Bradley in California, Douglas Wilder in Virginia) winning by far larger margins than they actually won by (Bradley was ahead in Election Day votes but lost because the absentee voters went heavily against him). Those polls didn't tend to overestimate the percentages of the black candidates, but they did understate the percentages for their white opponents (which you might expect to at least some extent because both of them, George Deukmejian and Marshall Coleman, had lower substantive name identification).

Some argue that we have seen the Bradley effect in the Democratic primaries this year. But Obama has tended to win percentages about what one might expect from pre-election polls; it was the exit polls that often (not always) overstated Obama's support. That could have happened (and I think did happen) because of respondent bias. Only about half the voters approached by exit-poll takers agree to take the poll. I think it's entirely plausible that Obama voters were more willing than Clinton voters to take the exit poll, for the same reasons that Obama supporters were more willing than Clinton supporters to take the trouble to attend caucuses. (See the results from the primaries and caucuses in states that had both: Washington, Nebraska, Idaho, Texas.)

I guess I can't say the case is entirely closed. But in my view, we're dealing this year with an electorate with only an exceedingly small percentage of voters who will not under any circumstances vote for a black candidate. Almost all voters who are rejecting Obama are doing so because of specifics about him and his issue positions, not his race.

By Michael Barone

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