Democratic Party Senator Barack Obama is on track to
become the first African-American major party nominee for president of the
United States. Polls show Obama currently leading his rival, Republican Party
Senator John McCain. If the polls are borne out on election day, Obama would
become the nation's first black president. But surveys cannot determine
whether, in the privacy of the voting booth, Americans will ultimately make a
decision based on race. In this feature series, VOA examines voter perceptions
across the country and asks Americans if the United States is ready for a black
president. VOA's Chris Simkins has our story.
In March, Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic
Party nominee, spoke about his race and its possible impact on the presidential
election. He was referring to the
Democratic party primaries.
"Despite the temptation to view my candidacy
through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some
of the whitest populations in the country," Obama said.
Barack Obama won millions of votes from white
Democrats during primary contests against Senator Hillary Clinton. But now he
is in a national campaign against Republican Senator John McCain. He hopes to
win states that are traditionally Republican, like Virginia and West Virginia.
States like Pennsylvania that are traditionally
Democratic but where white working class voters preferred Senator Clinton in
the primaries. Many voters in these states indicate race will be a factor come
West Virginia is a southern state with a large white
working class. Steve Miller owns a hotel and
restaurant in the town of Franklin. He says his community will not support Obama. "I don't think it is racist but they [West Virginians] are just not sure if they are ready for a black in office yet
I think is the problem," Miller said.
When Hillary Clinton defeated Obama in the West
Virginia primary, an ABC News and Washington Post poll found that for two in 10
white voters, the candidate's skin color was a factor.
Ed Tallman is editor of Franklin's newspaper. He says
he knows why West Virginians have a problem with Obama. "When a black man
has political power, or when a black person has political power many small town
West Virginians seem to believe that his policies will favor blacks rather than
working class whites," Tallman said.
Jeff Bowman, 84, owns a hardware
store there. He believes America is ready for a black president, but he also
finds Obama lacking. "He doesn't have the experience," Bowman said. "That
is more detrimental to him than the race."
Vesla Weaver is a professor at the University of Virginia. She has done
extensive research on how voters react to candidates' skin color.
"There is a strong pull of not looking racially
biased of not appearing to make racially based decisions in this country,"
Weaver said. "So when a voter is confronted with a black candidate and a white
candidate there is an effect of wanting to not make a racially based
Pennsylvania, a northeastern state, also has a large
white working class. With more than 8 million registered voters, the state is
crucial for Obama. Here too, Hillary Clinton defeated him in the Democratic
Lillian Kepler, 80, from Lewistown,
Pennsylvania says her problem with Obama is not related to race. "No, it
isn't because he is black it is just that I do not think he has the
qualifications that McCain has," Kelpler said.
On college campuses, even in southern Republican
states, Obama has been extremely popular with students.
University of Virginia students Geoff Skelly and
Chris Blank say race will be a factor in the election, but not for them.
"I think it is still going to be an
issue for some people, I think it will be a very small percentage of the
voters, maybe enough to turn the election, hopefully not," Skelly said.
"I sincerely feel that the people
who are not going to vote for him because he is an African American were never
going to vote for a Democrat anyway, " Blank added.
VOA spoke to dozens of voters across the
country. Most said America is ready to
elect a black president. But political observers say gauging views on race can
be difficult, in part because many hide their feelings. They say voters
sometimes are not even aware that race is influencing them.