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
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.”