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Commentary: Polls indicate a factor that could elect John McCain - reaction against Obama's race

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 29, 2008 - One may ask: How can Barack Obama possibly lose the 2008 presidential election?

After all, he is running when there seems to be an almost a perfect storm against John McCain. National polls show, and Missourians reflect national voter sentiment quite closely, that Obama would handle most all issues better than McCain (e.g., the economy, jobs, health care, education, the environment, and the recent financial crisis). McCain leads in only a few areas, most notably, national security. But a CNN poll (9/27/08) showed that in the first presidential debate Obama eroded McCain’s advantage even on this issue, winning the debate 51-38 percent because debate watchers felt Obama won easily on economic issues, 58-37 percent, and held his own on foreign policy, losing to McCain by only 49-45 percent.

Adding to McCain’s frustrations, many voters link McCain to President Bush’s failed administration, especially in his handling of the Iraq War and the recent financial collapse. Bush’s job approval ratings have been dismal in 2008, ranging from 24-33 percent in most polls and Republicans generally are not popular. Consequently, voters crave change and they see Obama, not McCain, as the best change agent by a three to one margin (51 percent to 17 percent; AP-Yahoo Poll, 9/5/08).

Obama’s almost perfect storm against McCain is buttressed by other electoral realities. Voters, for example, tend to get tired of the party controlling the White House for two terms or more, voting the party out, especially if the party holding the presidency is unpopular (e.g., the Republicans in 1960, 1976, and 1992 and the Democrats in 1968 and 2000). Bush’s very low approval ratings make the president an obvious campaign liability for McCain, preventing McCain from using him on the campaign trail, especially in the crucial battleground states. The president’s party’s candidate also has problems when most voters believe that the country is going in the wrong direction. A near record number of voters, 83 percent, think so. (ABC/Washington Post poll, 9/22/08).

Voters also tend to vote against the party in power when the economy is in the tank. Polls show that an overwhelming percentage of Americans (91 percent in a 9/24/08 ABC/Washington Post poll) rate the economy as in “bad shape.” Of course, what makes this particularly bad for McCain is that most Americans blame the Republicans for the poor economy, especially for the current financial crisis, 47 percent to 24 percent (CNN poll, 9/23/08).

Historically, Democratic presidential candidates normally benefit when the economy goes south (most recently in 1976 and 1992, but most famously in 1932). Adding to the perfect storm scenario for Obama, polls show that voters feel that Obama is more capable of handling our economic problems than McCain by a whopping margin, 57-33 percent (ABC/Wahington Post poll, 9/24/08), while his fellow Democrats are trusted to better handle the pending financial crisis by a 42 percent to 25 percent margin over Republicans (Zogby poll, 9/21/08).

Yet, despite all of these advantages, Obama is struggling to forge comfortably ahead in the polls nationally, in Missouri, and in other key battleground states. Close analysis of poll data points to one irksome problem – the fact that Obama is black.

For the vast majority of voters, poll data disclose that Obama’s race presents no problem, but to a critical minority of voters, his race is a problem. In a Public Policy Polling poll of Missouri voters on Aug. 20, McCain led Obama by 10 percent, 50 percent-40 percent, but Obama trailed by a staggering percentage, 21 percent, among white voters, 56-35 percent. In a state that is approximately 85 percent white, this is very bad news for Obama, even with recent polls showing the contest tightening.

What is most disturbing for Obama supporters is that some of this strong anti-Obama sentiment among white voters seems to be rooted in blatant racism. Skeptics might say that there are other reasons for white voters not supporting Obama, and this is true, but the “other-reasons” argument seems to lose credibility when we see that in the same poll Democrats Jay Nixon in the governor’s race, Robin Carnahan in the secretary of state’s race and Chris Koster in the attorney general’s race, all white candidates, have no problem with white voters. Nixon and Koster trail by only 1 percent, while Carnahan is up by 6 percent. This means that on Election Day we can expect many white voters to vote for Nixon, Koster and Carnahan and then cross-over and vote for that white guy, John McCain.

This anti-Obama vote pattern among white voters can be clearly seen in all state polls. The Sept. 5 AP-Yahoo poll, which focused on the race issue, disclosed that racist voting will cost Obama about 6 percent of the vote. In other words, if candidate Obama were white, given this almost perfect political storm this year heavily favoring the Democratic presidential candidate, chances are high that he would probably win in Missouri, as well as in most other battleground states, and thus easily win the 2008 presidential election.

So the questions remains, will Obama’s otherwise perfect storm conditions for winning the presidency be spoiled on Election Day by racist voting? 

Ken Warren, Ph.D., is professor of political science and public policy Saint Louis University and president of  The Warren Poll.

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