State of the Union January/February 2009

Race Over?

Race doesn’t matter, Barack Obama’s top advisers argued during the presidential election. At least, that’s what they said in public. Behind closed doors, however, Obama’s campaign worked methodically to woo white voters without alienating black ones—and vice versa.
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[Correction appended]

A few days after the presidential election, as Barack Obama’s senior staff went into post­-campaign hibernation, I logged onto my AOL Instant Messenger account at about 7:30 a.m. to find that David Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, was one of the few live names on my buddy list.

Over the telephone, Axelrod can be opaque and cautious; online, he’s a little more direct. So I asked him about something I had noticed while reviewing the election results. Why had the Democratic presidential candidate underperformed relative to white Democratic statewide candidates in states such as North Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri? Why had a crescent of counties throughout the South and up through Appalachia blushed quite red?

“Do you think,” I typed to Axelrod, “when all is said and done, that racism was responsible for some of the states being as close as they were?”

Axelrod was unruffled.

“Marc, we won NC, VA, FLA, OHIO, IN and ran away with PA!”

“OK, fair enough,” I typed back.

Axelrod continued: “If there were one state where we underperformed Gore and Kerry, it would be a fair question.” Obama’s victory, in other words, had made the question irrelevant.

During the campaign, Axelrod and Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, as well as other members of the senior staff, had routinely fended off questions about race. It didn’t matter, they insisted. “At the end of the day, I mean honestly, we just never were that concerned,” Plouffe told me shortly before the election.

But some of them were concerned.

One was Cornell Belcher, a top Obama pollster who had conducted some of the campaign’s earliest research on race. In the fall, when some Obama advisers began predicting a landslide, Belcher would have none of it. “No one with any real post-civil-rights understanding of our national political contours could with a straight face predicate a Democratic national landslide,” he told me in September. Over the summer, two Pennsylvania congressmen, Tim Holden and Jack Murtha, had sparked anxiety in the Obama campaign when they reported that racial resistance to the Democrat’s candidacy was hardening in their state. Earlier, the AFL-CIO, which spent $53.4 million to elect Obama, had noticed that older white men in Ohio and Pennsylvania were unreceptive to the campaign’s economic messages. The AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, Richard Trumka, responded by giving an extraordinary but little-noticed speech in Las Vegas, in which he told steelworkers, “There’s only one really, really bad reason to vote against Barack Obama, and that’s because he’s not white.”

Trumka spoke about an encounter he’d had during the Democratic primaries. “I went back to my hometown in Nemacolin [Pennsylvania], and I ran into a woman that I’ve … known for years. She was active in Democratic politics when I was still in grade school.” The woman told Trumka that she was voting for Hillary Clinton. “‘There’s no way that I’d ever vote for Obama.’ I said, ‘Why is that?’ She said, ‘Well, he’s Muslim.’ And I said, ‘Well, actually, he’s Christian, just like you and I. But so what if he’s Muslim?’ Then she shook her head and said, ‘Well, he won’t wear that American-flag pin on his lapel.’” Trumka told her that Obama did, indeed, wear a flag pin. Then she said, “‘Well, I just don’t trust him.’ … She drops her voice a bit. And she says, ‘Because he’s black.’ And I says: ‘Look around this town. Nemacolin’s a dying town. There’s no jobs here. Our kids are moving away because there’s no future here. And here is a man, Barack Obama, who’s gonna fight for people like us, and you wanna tell me that you won’t vote for him because of the color of his skin? Are you out of your ever-loving mind?’”

The Obama campaign faced a fundamental challenge: it had to make those pilsners of the Democratic electorate—true independents, Reagan Democrats, and working-class whites—culturally comfortable with Obama while simulta­neously increasing African American participation. To do this, Obama would have to decouple a century’s worth of political antagonisms. Because whenever the political engagement and intensity of African American voters have grown, so has racial polarity among voters.

Even during the 2008 primaries, a discomfiting pattern had emerged: Barack Obama did his best overall in the states with the largest or the smallest percentages of African American voters—think of South Carolina, where blacks made up 55 percent of the Democratic-primary vote, and Vermont, where they made up less than 2 percent. Obama won in states where black Democrats had already attained a measure of political power, or where whites had never competed with blacks. In states where black voters made up more than 20 percent of the general-election vote, the political scientist Charles Franklin found an inverse relationship between the proportion of black voters and the share of Obama’s vote among whites. The greater the proportion of blacks in a state’s population, the smaller Obama’s share of the white vote.

Obama refused to accept this late-20th-century model of racial politics, and he had no intention of fighting the general election with the same bolo punches and taunts that had stopped working decades ago. He had written a memoir about the labyrinthine complexities of racial difference. He wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the psychological effects of, say, race-based affirmative action on poorer whites. He had an exotic name. He was new. He was young. Most of his advisers weren’t black.

“There was a period when it was not at all clear that Obama would be able to win the vast majority of the African American vote,” David Binder, Obama’s focus-group guru, told me after the election. “The biggest problem we had with African Americans would be that they didn’t think he could ever win.” In the focus groups, black voters told Binder that they didn’t believe whites would ever vote for Obama. “That all changed with Iowa,” he said. “The Iowa results proved to many African Americans that Obama had broader-based appeal and was not just someone who was going to be a token African American candidate.”

Last February, the black journalist Tavis Smiley held his annual State of the Black Union forum in New Orleans. For the second year in a row, Obama declined to attend. (The 2007 forum took place on the day he launched his campaign.) Smiley was angry about the slight and criticized Obama openly. The backlash against Smiley was intense. This was just after Obama had won the South Carolina primary, after African Americans had united around Obama in part because the Clinton campaign seemed to be writing him—and them—off. Smiley quit The Tom Joyner Morning Show, one of the country’s most popular radio programs among African Americans, because, as Joyner explained to his audience, “He can’t take the hate he’s taken over Barack Obama. He’s always busting Barack Obama’s chops.”

The Smiley backlash was evidence to Obama’s inner circle that, in the words of one adviser, “Barack became untouchable in the community,” in much the same way that civil-rights heroes such as John Lewis had earned a lifetime’s worth of goodwill and benefit of the doubt. “Tavis Smiley was the object lesson for everyone,” says Anita Dunn, a senior campaign strategist.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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