Relative Absence of Race Debate in US Presidential Race Surprises Analysts



Professor of politics at the University of Virginia Larry Sabato says race has “surprisingly” not been as prominent so far in the U.S. presidential campaign as many analysts expected. When Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination in June, some commentators thought his bid to be the U.S.’s first African American president would provide massive impetus to the race debate in the United States. Sabato is the director of the university’s Center for Politics and the author of more than 20 books on U.S. politics.

He says while some analysts are relatively surprised that the race question hasn’t featured to a great degree so far in the presidential race, it’s clearly still a factor.

“Let’s not forget that in the Democratic primaries, the overwhelming majority of African Americans voted for Obama, while about two-thirds of the Hispanics voted for Hillary Clinton, and a large majority of whites did as well,” Sabato recalls.

Another close watcher of U.S. politics, from an African perspective, is the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s Washington bureau chief, Manelisi Dubase. He agrees that most racial messages put out by both the Obama and McCain campaigns so far have been “subliminal.”

But he’s also convinced that the “politics of race,” which he says up until now have “shadowed” this election campaign and have mainly been “unspoken,” are set to become more apparent. He points to events a few weeks ago, when McCain accused Obama of “playing politics with race.” This was in response to the Democrat’s claim that Republicans were trying to frighten voters away from him by saying that he “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.”

Dubase says, “Up until this happened, the subject of race was a hot potato, almost taboo, in this campaign. This was the first time that the skin color issue exploded into the open, and I think it’s an indication of things to come. Things are going to get dirty, and there’s nothing more dirty than racism or even suggestions thereof.”

But Sabato is of the opinion that the McCain campaign is “smart enough to know that if they overtly use race against Barack Obama, it will backfire in probably a fatal way for McCain.”

He agrees, though, that the Republicans, including McCain support groups, may be tempted to use Obama’s race against him but adds that the “most important aspect” with regard to race in this campaign may well only emerge on Election Day itself.

“The question that all pollsters and analysts have is this: Will there be racial leakage? Will you have a certain percentage of whites who have told pollsters in advance that they’re voting Democratic, who go into the polls, and, once they’re alone, end up voting for the white candidate because they just can’t pull the lever down for the African American nominee?” Sabato asks.

The analyst says this has indeed happened in some races for governor and mayor all across the United States “for decades” – although to a lesser degree in recent years.

Sabato’s convinced that some whites will not be able to bring themselves to vote for Obama, simply because he’s black. He says it’s “anybody’s guess” as to what extent this happens, but says it could ultimately be the “difference between victory and defeat.”

Sabato has a history of successfully predicting political outcomes. In the 2004 U.S. campaign, he correctly predicted the fate of 525 of the 530 political races in the Electoral College. In 2006, his forecast that the Democrats would win a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate was again spot-on.

“There’s no question about it; African Americans are going to give Barack Obama at least 95 per cent of their votes, in a large turnout. Now, that could also generate a large white turnout…come November the 4th,” says Sabato.

But Dubase says “simple demographics” are the reason why Obama will not concentrate too much on the politics of race. He points out that in 2004 about 15 million African Americans registered to vote, in contrast with about 140 million white Americans. African-Americans make up a mere 13 per cent of the U.S. population of just over 300 million. Dubase says in this context it makes “far more sense” for Obama to try to gain the support of the white majority than for him to emphasize the color of his skin and racial inequality in an attempt to “curry favor with those he already has in his pocket.”

However, Dubase also highlights the fact that the candidate who wins the popular vote in the United States doesn’t always win the presidency, and the African American vote could prove key in swinging certain states – and possible victory in the election – Obama’s way.

“The Obama camp is in a dilemma. They cannot afford to concentrate too much on race, because then they risk antagonizing or alienating whites. On the other hand, they cannot afford to ignore race, because they want a large African American turnout, especially in certain states. So, it’s a delicate balancing act.”

Dubase says many older Africans remember U.S. civil rights leader Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984 and 1988 and are concerned that “white America is still not prepared to be led by a black man.” Some analysts say the abrasive Jackson failed in his bids because he emphasized race excessively, and Obama wants to avoid that.

“Obama couldn’t be more different than Jesse Jackson, who is exceptionally confrontational,” says Sabato. “He (Jackson) was a black candidate for president; Obama is a candidate for president who happens to be black. The contrast could not be more dramatic.”

Dubase says the fact that Obama isn’t part of the U.S. civil rights generation and seems to be “all about appeasement rather than confrontation” is working at the moment because it’s in line with Obama’s “message of change,” and his desire to be considered a “statesman for all Americans” and a “peacemaker rather than a warmonger.”



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