TOPICS > Politics

Impact of Race on Election Remains an Unknown Factor

October 22, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
Loading the player...
With Election Day near, questions over how race will impact voter choices in the first presidential election with an African-American candidate representing a major party remain a looming factor. Analysts discuss the role race has -- and has not -- played in the contest.

GWEN IFILL: Barack Obama may be the nation’s first African-American major party presidential nominee, but he has run a studiously race-neutral campaign.

Still, the race issue never quite goes away, whether it is raised by worried supporters like the Pennsylvania congressman who said race would cost Obama votes, or the radio talk show hosts who dismissed Colin Powell’s endorsement as entirely race-based.

So how much do we really know about whether the Illinois senator’s race will hurt or help on Election Day?

For that, we turn to Michael Fauntroy, professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of the book “Republicans and the Black Vote”; Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press; and Eddie Glaude, Jr., a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton. He’s author of “In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America.”

Andy Kohut, polls show that Barack Obama has been doing relatively well for some time. Even as he leads the race, is there any way, as you look at your measurements, to discover whether race has been a negative or a positive?

ANDREW KOHUT, President, Pew Research Center: Well, it’s a little bit of a both. It’s more of a negative than a positive. And it’s clearly there. It’s not a dominant factor.

But we know that, when we score people according to how racially tolerant or intolerant they are, that small group of people that continue to be racially intolerant are less inclined to vote for Barack Obama.

We knew in the exit polls we’d get about 13 percent in a typical state saying that race was a consideration when they cast their ballot. And in private, they checked off the fact that they voted for Hillary Clinton more often than they voted for Barack Obama compared to the people who said race was not a factor.

It’s there. To my mind, and to my measurements, it’s a second-tier factor for Obama.

GWEN IFILL: It’s not a determining factor?

ANDREW KOHUT: It’s not a — it’s not as important as saying that Obama is not experienced enough, he lacks the qualifications, or he’s not tough enough, but it’s there as a factor.

And the important thing about it is to — it’s to some extent an unknown. We don’t know whether the polls are underestimating the size of the racially intolerant segment of the electorate.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Fauntroy, what do you think of that?

MICHAEL FAUNTROY, George Mason University: I agree with Andy. And I would also say that, even though it is a second-tier issue — and I agree that it’s a second-tier issue — it should also be noted, though, that in a close election, a second-tier issue could be enough to move enough votes in one state or another.

Now, the way the polls are right now suggests that there may be enough of a spread where it won’t impact the turnout or the final results in one state or another.

But if this race tightens between now and Election Day — and historically, all elections do — it could potentially have an impact in one state or another. And at that point, you know, anything could happen and we could possibly end up in a long night on election night.

Race still a factor

Eddie Glaude Jr.
Princeton University
There's a large number of folk, a large number of Americans, who came of age during a period where the cultural wars actually mattered, came of age during a context or a moment when we saw the nation quite polarized around the issues of race.

GWEN IFILL: Eddie Glaude, a long night? And if it is a long night, will it be because of race or other factors?

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR., Princeton University: Well, it would probably be because of race and other factors, not either/or.

I think we have to be very mindful that race has been a part of our history since our inception as a nation. And so it would be a bit naive to believe that, just 43 years removed from the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that racial commitments, racial beliefs are not in some ways impacting voter decision.

I think, even if we think about it as a second-tier issue, it will still in some significant way animate the decision-making process. And like our other panelists said, I mean, it's difficult to quantify it, but we must, must acknowledge that it's going to have an impact in some significant way.

GWEN IFILL: Let's try, Professor Glaude, to quantify it this way. We have looked back at previous races. We have seen what happened with Doug Wilder's race in Virginia, where he thought he was going to win by 10 points, won by 1 point.

We saw what has purported to have happened in California in 1982, when Bradley ran and didn't quite win, and some polls, at least some public polls had predicted he would. We saw what happened in North Carolina with Harvey Gantt, where things really narrowed there at the end.

Have things changed completely now?

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR.: Well, I would say that things are changing. And I think the matters that are changing have everything to do with demographic shifts.

We have a younger voting population, the so-called millennial generation and Generation Y, that group between 18 and 29, who have a different kind of experience. These are folk who have come of age post the cultural wars, come of age post the kinds of issues that defined the '60s and '70s.

So I would say, among that particular generation, whose social spaces are much more diverse, whose working spaces are much more diverse, that the issue of race doesn't quite, shall we say, over-determine their decision-making process.

But we have to be clear, that there's a large number of folk, a large number of Americans, who came of age during a period where the cultural wars actually mattered, came of age during a context or a moment when we saw the nation quite polarized around the issues of race, not just simply around the moment with Dr. King, but around the issue around black power.

So I would want to suggest that we don't rush to the future, not just yet, that race still animates our social spaces, still animates our political landscape, still impacts the economic reality of so many Americans.

But we understand that things are shifting, that matters are changing. But, nevertheless, we still have to deal with this extraordinary enormous legacy of racism that has defined this country for so long.

Race colors election less than past

Andrew Kohut
Pew Research Center
You know, race gets tied up in political polarization and economic issues. And it's always there, but it's not there the way it once was.

GWEN IFILL: Andy, is there any evidence that, to the extent that race animates our political discussions, animates it for white candidates, as well as for African-American or other candidates of color?

ANDREW KOHUT: To some extent, but a great deal less than it once did. I mean, Barack Obama wouldn't be in the shape he's in if he were running in 1987.

I'll give you an example of this. In 1987, for the first time, I asked a question about, "How do you feel about interracial dating?" Fifty-five percent of the white people that we questioned said they disapproved. That number has slowly come down every year. It's only at 14 percent.

It's largely because the generations that have come of age since 1987 and those that have passed have different attitudes toward race and, therefore, our political discussions are less animated by race.

But, you know, race gets tied up in political polarization and economic issues. And it's always there, but it's not there the way it once was.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, Professor Fauntroy, I saw with interest earlier just this week where Joe Biden, the vice presidential nominee, commented that he was worried that race would play a factor for many voters.

We heard what John Murtha, the congressman in Pennsylvania, said about what he believed would happen with people in his own district who would not vote for Barack Obama. Has it gone away, really? Are they speaking to something that's real?

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: I think they're speaking to something that's real for their constituencies and their generation. And as has been stated before, you know, younger people have a different socialization pattern right now. And so they don't see things in much of the same way.

But the reality is, the most consistent voting bloc in America is among older voters. You know, they're the ones who are going to decide this election. And if younger voters decide to show up in the sorts of numbers that we are potentially seeing, in terms of all the excitement out in the country, then that could change.

But John Murtha was reflecting years of experience in dealing with his constituents. And he got caught in a moment of candor that caught some people off-guard, but I think actually reflects much of what's going on in Pennsylvania.

Economy overshadowing race issue

Michael Fauntroy
George Mason University
Race becomes a bit more submerged over time when people are wondering, 'Am I going to be able to keep my house, make my car payment, pay my tuition, literally heat my house this winter?'

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you to follow through on that. Absent this economic story, this economic meltdown, do you think that perhaps race would be playing a more significant factor?

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: Yes. I think that the economic story has forced some people to actually consider their self-interest in a way that they might not have in previous elections.

And so race becomes a bit more submerged over time when people are wondering, "Am I going to be able to keep my house, make my car payment, pay my tuition, literally heat my house this winter?"

So I think that voters who could potentially be driven by race are now having a competition in their mind with economic issues and other things that are pushing race to the side a bit.

GWEN IFILL: Andy, I see you nodding. You've seen that, as well?

ANDREW KOHUT: Absolutely. We see that among all -- I mean, the racialist vote is older, white, less well-educated, and we can see that vote moving a little bit to Barack Obama. It's still with McCain, but not the way it was before the financial crisis and the meltdown.

These older people look at Obama and they say, "I have much more confidence in him to deal with the financial crisis and, most specifically, with health care," which is scaring them to death.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Professor Glaude, when often we talk about race and its effect on politics, we talk about a negative effect, a drag that it -- is there a positive effect?

I've been noticing the incredible early voting numbers of people in states with much larger black populations turning out early to vote. I wonder if there's a positive, at least from Barack Obama's point of view, about what race could bring in this campaign.

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR.: Absolutely. I mean, part of what we see -- in a very interesting way -- is the very ways in which Senator Obama has expanded the participatory base.

What I mean by that is that we're beginning to see folk who are not necessarily or have not historically been active in the democratic process participate in large numbers.

So what's interesting about the way in which race is being talked about or dealt with in this campaign is a kind of wink-and-nod politics that Senator Obama runs as a kind of race-neutral candidate, but there is a kind of wink to the African-American community that we have the potential here for a first, that we have an African-American who will now sit in the White House.

One grandmother actually said it will now become the Black House. And this has energized...

GWEN IFILL: Which, by the way...

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR.: ... an electorate.

GWEN IFILL: Which, by the way, some people say is a negative.

EDDIE GLAUDE, JR.: Oh, absolutely. But for this particular demographic, right, who we've seen their numbers kind of not showing up at the polls -- that's not quite an elegant formulation, but you get the point, that black folk haven't turned out in the requisite numbers that we think they ought to have turned -- that they ought to have turned out in the past.

And so what we're seeing now is all of this excitement that -- so, in other words, what I'm trying to suggest is that the Bradley effect can be countered by the Obama effect.

And the Obama effect is energizing young folk and energizing a black electorate. And if we can turn out those numbers in, shall we say, dramatic fashion, maybe we can actually counter some of the, shall we say, the undertow of the toxicity of racism in this country.

GWEN IFILL: We're almost done, but final words?

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: I just wanted to say quickly, that effect could be tempered by a reality that upwards of 15 percent of African-American men in states like Georgia and Florida are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. And so the ceiling is much lower in some places than in others.

GWEN IFILL: We'll measure it all on Election Day and the days afterward. Michael Fauntroy, Eddie Glaude, and Andy Kohut, thank you all very much.