Michael Nelson: If Obama loses, is racism to blame?





[Michael Nelson, a former editor of The Washington Monthly, is a professor of political science at Rhodes College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.]

A conventional wisdom is forming to the effect that if Barack Obama loses the presidential election in November, white racism will be the cause. The reasoning runs as follows: The combination of economic anxiety, the unpopular war in Iraq, George W. Bush’s low approval ratings, and the public’s overwhelming sense that the United States is on the “wrong track” means that the deck is stacked this year in favor of the Democrats. So if the Democratic nominee for president loses, it must be for some shady reason. Add to that a recent New York Times poll showing that although only 5 percent of voters say they would not vote for an African-American candidate for president, 24 percent say they don’t think the country is ready to elect one.

The truth is more complicated. In good times and bad, Democrats tend to lose presidential elections: Since 1968, they have lost 7 of 10, four of them by landslides. The only Democrats who have won the presidency — Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 — were centrist Southern governors. Whenever the party has nominated a Northern liberal, especially one whose chief political credential is in Washington, it has lost the election: Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Al Gore in 2000 (a de facto Washingtonian), and John Kerry in 2004.

Obama is a Northern liberal whose chief political credential is in Washington. And he’s “balanced” the ticket with Joseph Biden, another Northern liberal whose chief political credential is in Washington.

To be sure, Obama will lose some votes because he is black. He will also gain some votes because he is black, not just from fellow African-Americans (an already solidly Democratic constituency, but one whose turnout rate is expected to rise) but also from young white voters.

And don’t forget the particular burden of prejudice that John McCain bears: ageism. Exactly one year ago, Gallup asked people to look at a long list of candidate characteristics and say whether they thought each one “would be a desirable characteristic for the next president to have, an undesirable characteristic, or if it wouldn’t matter much to you either way.” Ten percent responded that being “a member of a racial or ethnic minority group” would be desirable, 13 percent that it would be undesirable....


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