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.

“We came to realize that the black community, politically, had moved into a different era,” another senior Obama adviser told me shortly after the election. “You could get intensity in the African American community by giving them a candidate they could see as being able to win. You didn’t have to speak to them in a way that would make white people nervous.” Obama shared the antipathy of liberal whites and younger blacks toward the hand-to-hand, transactional politics that had characterized the relationship between the Democratic Party and many African American leaders.

It took the campaign a while to figure out the right course. “We did not have an organized strategy around this,” says Michael Strautmanis, a counselor to Obama. “It was like a series of constant recalibrations.”

In the winter of 2007, the campaign entered a bidding war with the Clinton campaign over the endorsement of State Senator Darrell Jackson, the pastor of one of the largest congregations in South Carolina. The Obama campaign offered him a $5,000-per-month retainer, and Jackson said he would soon endorse him. But then he sent word that the Clinton campaign was offering a more lucrative contract, implying, at least to the Obama team, that he would endorse Obama only if they would tender a more generous offer. Through his deputy campaign manager, Obama refused. It would be the last time that Obama negotiated with black pastors this way. (Jackson endorsed Clinton.)

A few weeks before the general election, aides to a pastor contacted the Obama campaign and laid out a political battle plan. The pastor would mobilize 300,000 volunteers and dispatch 72 church vans to battleground states on Election Day. He would touch more than 2 million voters. All he needed was $5 million to pay for it. The Obama campaign thanked him and said no. The pastor threatened to go public with the refusal. The Obama campaign pointed to examples of other black leaders who had confronted Obama in public, and invited the pastor, in essence, to bring it on. (The pastor apologized the day after the election.) [ Note: Please see appended correction.]

The recalibrations extended into decisions about what speeches Obama should give. Shortly before winning the South Carolina primary, Obama spoke at a celebration honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta. It was a propitious moment for African Americans: Obama had become a credible front-runner for the nomination after winning Iowa. Some advisers wanted him to speak directly to African Americans as he headed into a primary in the first state in the nation to secede, but Obama chose to deliver a much broader message: he ended the speech with a story about a developing friendship between a white female volunteer and a black male volunteer in South Carolina, pointing the way toward a different kind of racial politics.

Cornell Belcher’s polling and decades of political-science research showed that white voters held certain stereotypes about black politicians—namely, that they were more likely to raise taxes and redistribute wealth, were weak on crime, and favored heavy government spending to help the poor (read: minorities like them). To Belcher, such stereotypes were a legacy of Lee Atwater and the Republican Party’s infamous “Southern strategy,” which converted overt racial bias into coded language about the economy. At the height of the Reagan Revolution, Atwater told an interviewer: “You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a by-product of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.” By the time Ronald Reagan was elected, Atwater explained, polite society no longer tolerated overt racism, so Republican consultants resorted to formulations that hit racial trigger points but afforded plausible deniability. Belcher thought those triggers still had the potential to work with white working-class voters.

To confound the stereotypes, Obama’s campaign decided to challenge them directly. It flooded white working-class regions in North Carolina, Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, and Colorado with ads claiming that Obama would cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, and others alleging that McCain would raise taxes on health care “for millions.” Both ads, while arguably misleading, were also successful. By the end of the campaign, more Americans believed that John McCain would raise their taxes than thought Obama would. To be fair, other Obama aides dispute the notion that the emphasis on taxes came out of a strategic discussion on race. Plouffe told me that the tax argument had always been planned for a fall rollout, and was intended to speak directly to economic anxiety—which it did.

When, at the end of the campaign, John McCain daubed Obama with the tag of “redistributionist,” Obama aides were relieved to find that the label did not change voters’ perception of Obama. “It didn’t work at all,” Plouffe told me.

For the record, McCain aides said that their strategy had nothing to do with Obama’s race, but just was what it was: Obama would confiscate money from the rich and give it to others. McCain saw him as a quasi-socialist who intended to redistribute income. Mark Salter, McCain’s closest aide, told me it was “bullshit” to think that McCain had an ulterior motive, citing McCain’s refusal to allow his surrogates to bring up Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, as an example of the Republican candidate’s sensitivity to racial issues.

According to research that Belcher’s firm conducted about three weeks before the election, swing voters had an unusually high degree of what he called “racial aversion.” Belcher had asked registered white voters whether they strongly agreed, agreed, did not know, disagreed, or strongly disagreed with a series of statements designed to measure attitudes toward black people. (One of those statements: “I often feel that African Americans aren’t as proud and patriotic about this country as I am.” Another: “As the result of racial preferences, less qualified minorities too often get hired and promoted.”) The more the survey respondents agreed with these statements, the more racial animus they presumably held.

“The fluid voters that were left floating out there were voters who had above-average scores on racial aversion, but they weren’t behaving strongly like the rest of the voters who held above-average racial aversions,” Belcher told me. In other words, there was a cohort of voters leaning toward Obama whose racial-aversion scores were comparable to those of voters who were explicit about their prejudice and said they would not vote for Obama.

These voters were susceptible to a form of cross-pressure, which Belcher identified as a dissonance between their gut beliefs and their material circumstances. “Three, four weeks out, part of what was driving that swing electorate to be swing was this cross-pressure,” he said. “If you look at their issues, they should be for Barack Obama; if you look at their racial-aversion scores, they should be for John McCain.”

Two weeks before the election, I visited the Obama campaign headquarters in downtown Chicago and spent the day with various advisers. Exactly four years earlier, John Kerry was flying from urban center to urban center, enlisting the support of Bill Clinton to pump up minority turnout. In some states, internal Kerry polling in mid-October showed Bush overperforming among black voters. Democrats were obsessed with what they called the “African American piece”: the quadrennial party efforts to get out the black vote, usually with visits from black leaders and robocalls from Bill Clinton.

But on October 22, 2008, Obama was in largely white exurban Virginia. That morning, Anita Dunn predicted that Obama would win between 95 and 98 percent of the African American vote. “We’ve done some polls recently in which not one African American voter was voting for John McCain.” (Exit polls show that Obama won 95 percent of the black vote nationally and between 94 and 98 percent in most battleground states.)

As foregone as this lopsided outcome may seem, it also highlights what Obama did not have to do: he did not have to pander to black leaders; he did not have to target specific messages at the black community with the attendant risk of exacerbating economic tension between blacks and whites. He did not have to bring up race. And that was key, because Belcher’s polling confirmed that culturally anxious whites were willing to vote for a black candidate so long as they did not meditate on the candidate’s blackness. Obama was able to credential himself as an African American without engaging in overt racial politics. Or, rather, the black community credentialed Obama without his resorting to racial politicking, something that white Democratic candidates had to do.

What Obama did is also instructive: he bypassed the traditional filters that mediate the relationship between a politician and African American voters. Tom Joyner’s radio show reaches millions of African Americans each week; Obama, according to his campaign, appeared on it more than 15 times. Since white editors and reporters don’t listen to Joyner’s show, no one seems to have noticed. Most notably, Obama’s campaign found out where black voters live, registered them, and persuaded them to vote early. In Georgia, African Americans accounted for 36 percent of the early vote.

“The vast majority of the mail and radio and TV that was targeted at African Americans was informational,” says Pete Giangreco, a media strategist for the campaign. “How do you register? How do you go and vote early?”

At 7 p.m. on Election Day, an Obama field staffer told me, there was momentary panic in the Ohio campaign headquarters: there were no lines at polling places. This was weird; in 2004, memorably, huge lines of black voters and young voters were waiting to cast their ballots when the polls closed. Early voting had erased that picture.

In the end, Obama replicated the image-control paradigm of successful black Americans who have transcended racial boundaries: Oprah, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan. The writer Michael Grunwald calls these men and women “no-demands” blacks; their acceptance by whites was not predicated on whites’ having to give up anything fundamental or betray their convictions or untangle a major stereotype. Belcher told me before the election, “I don’t think a black man can be president of the United States of America. However, I think an exceptional individual who also happens to be black can be president of the United States of America.”

The election was a toss-up among those who had voted before, but Obama won overwhelmingly among the 11percent of voters—roughly 13 million people—who were voting for the first time. Sixty-two percent of them were under 30, and their racial-aversion scores put them in the liberal camp, ideologically. “The newer, younger voters struggle less with the racial and cultural ghosts of our country’s past,” Belcher said. “They turned the page and stopped this race from being a toss-up.”

So Obama did find a way to break the racial code. But what timing! Massive economic cross-pressures; the country’s slow evolution into a minority-majority polity; the iron grip that Democrats have on younger voters; the aging of the white working class—Obama came along just as demographics were beginning to undo that code anyway.

Maybe. After the election, Belcher resampled the white voters whose racial animus he had measured before. More than half had voted for McCain, but not by an overwhelming margin. Belcher concluded that Obama might have done better among them had he not been black. In 1992, Belcher noted, 85 percent of voters who said the economy was bad broke for Bill Clinton. In 2008, in a verifiably worse economic climate, only 66 percent of voters who said the economy was bad voted for Barack Obama. “The economy is clearly not the only story. I could argue that the economy wasn’t as big an impact this time around as in 1992,” Belcher told me. “You can’t look at that swath of hard-red counties that actually grew even redder and say that we are post-racial.”

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.



Correction: As originally posted, this article incorrectly identified the pastor who attempted to secure money from the Obama campaign as Pastor Anthony Evans of the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas. Dr. Evans had no such contact with the Obama campaign, and did not campaign or canvass on behalf of Barack Obama. We regret the error.

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic associate editor. He blogs at marcambinder.theatlantic.com.
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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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