The Most Dangerous Topic: Race

Posted: Mar 20, 2008 12:01 AM
The Most Dangerous Topic: Race

As a pollster, I truly don't care who wins the presidency. I can't allow myself to do that. This makes my former Republican colleagues angry and Democrats suspicious.

What I offer is analytical opinions, and I'll offer one on Barack Obama and his pastor.

First, an admission on my part. Unlike the other two major presidential candidates, I have never spent time with Sen. Obama, or spoken with him by phone. This has simply been a matter of scheduling and availability. And it's too bad, because he seems to be a thoroughly likeable man.

To me, Obama isn't the "angry black man" who secretly desires to "get the white man." I know of people who think otherwise. They aren't racists. They've simply heard or heard about the controversial comments from his pastor and find it hard to believe that Obama isn't just skillfully dancing away from Jeremiah Wright without truly distancing himself from the man.

Let me assure you that when you are in politics, you may be sitting in the church pew, but usually your mind is racing in 20 other directions. You hear what your minister says, but you hardly have time or the desire to go correcting him or her, regardless of how outrageous the comments.

So I understand what Obama is saying when he suggests that he disapproves of the comments made by the Rev. Wright, but can't abandon him as his pastor.

On the flip side, just as those who accept Obama's words at face value understand what they mean, the reaction to Obama's pastor's comments by many Americans cannot be termed as "racist." Surely even his most ardent supporters must wonder why the Obama family chose to attend a church where racist comments and attacks on America's leadership occurred, even if on an irregular basis. I don't doubt their answer, but it doesn't keep some from wondering.

I have no idea whether Obama's speech of this past week, which was hailed by some as the greatest speech on race relations since MLK's "I Have Dream" speech of the early 1960s, helped or hurt the Obama campaign.

We will poll America's reactions to the speech, but I won't be totally persuaded by the results. I'm convinced that when it comes down to issues as touchy as race, respondents of all ethnic and racial demographics don't necessarily tell the truth.

My take is that neither those who have told me in recent days, "He's cooked now," nor others who have proclaimed, "This has elevated him to a new level and will make him president" have any real way of knowing the political consequences of all this.

But there is one thing I can say definitively: Anyone who believes that race, for better or worse, doesn't matter in this election is either a liar or a fool. I've looked at far too many of our polls that have shown that African-American voters are all but completely united in support for Obama. If anything, that support has solidified recently.

That's understandable, of course. This is a time that most black voters never dreamed would take place. Does anyone with half a brain think that they would not embrace Obama's success?

So there. I've said everything that everyone who hates the Obama candidacy and despises his pastor's philosophy did not want to hear.

But here's the real question: How will white voters react if Obama is the Democratic nominee? He has won much of the Democratic white vote in many states. But many of those states vote Republican in the general election.

Ultimately, I have no idea whether white voters will see African-American voters going for a black candidate in an almost wholesale manner in the nomination process, and still accept the argument that race should not play a role in whites' own decisions on whom to vote for.

Truthfully, it probably would have enhanced Obama's chances to win in November if he had received less of the black vote in the Democratic primaries. Then it would have been easier for him to argue that race didn't matter then, and won't ever.

But no matter how hard everyone tries to hide it, race has become an issue in the 2008 campaign. What role it ends up playing is anyone's guess.

And I thought it would all be about gender!