Monday, July 28, 2008

More on Obama's Trip

In today's Politico, Carrie Budoff Brown has a very nice review of Obama's trip overseas and the impact it might have. Obama seems to be enjoying a significant bounce in the Gallup tracking poll in the last few days - his lead jumped from two points (45% to 43%) on July 24 to nine points (49% to 40%) as of yesterday.

Clearly, this is - at a minimum - a short-term "good-news" effect. It could also turn out to have long-term positive consequences for Obama as the trip may have addressed voters' questions about his leadership ability. But I still think it's a mistake to attempt to go toe-to-toe with McCain on foreign/defense/security policy.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Priming and the Presidential Campaign

It is far too early to begin placing much stock in tracking polls, but the trend in the Gallup daily track may reveal a fundamental flaw in Obama's campaign strategy to this point. In short, he's priming voters to think about a set of issues that work to his disadvantage.

The Gallup results for July 18-20 were Obama 47%, McCain 41%, a six point lead; those for July 21-23, released today, have Obama up a mere two points (45% to 43%). This suggests not only that Obama's trip has yet to produce a bounce, but that it may be hurting him.

How could that be when the coverage has been glowing? Indeed, the more general question of why Obama's lead isn't larger, given that the environment is ripe for him, is on the minds of many commentators. Just yesterday, John Judis on The New Republic's blog "The Plank" noted that, in addition to McCain "inept" campaign,
Democrats enjoy an average lead of 11.6 percent in generic Congress polls. In addition, the Republican administration is wildly unpopular; the economy is in a tailspin; and the Iraqi president has endorsed Barack Obama's withdrawal plan. Yet Obama is only running an average of 4.5 percent ahead of McCain in the polls, and... is losing ground in some critical state polls.
Judis concludes that Obama remains a "mysterious stranger" to many voters. That's certainly true and, given his race, it is likely to remain true throughout the campaign making the contest much closer than it otherwise might have been. But there's another reason for Obama's inability to build a large lead over McCain and it also explains why he may fail to get a bounce out of his trip abroad.

For the past month, the Obama campaign has been placing a great deal of emphasis on foreign policy and national security with the goal of building the candidate's credibility in these areas. But by doing so, he is priming voters to think about the very issues on which they prefer John McCain. Indeed, his trip overseas was intended to portray him in a positive light on the world stage. It has certainly done that. But it has also reminded average voters (that is, those who are not wildly partisan) that, when it comes to foreign policy, they trust Republicans more than Democrats and John McCain more than Barack Obama. And, as if that weren't enough, it says nothing to voters about what they are most concerned with right now and that is the awful economic conditions facing the nation.

One understands the temptation of the Obama campaign to show that voting for him would not be a gamble with respect to foreign policy. But persuading voters to discard their assumptions about the strengths and weaknesses of the parties and their nominees takes years, not weeks or even months. Furthermore, foreign policy isn't likely to drive many voting decisions in the fall (barring a major international event). As a result, Obama's best bet is to return home as soon as possible and start priming voters on the issue area he can dominate - the economy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Obama on Personal Responsibility: Race Baiting not "Tough Love"

The New Yorker magazine's cover art featuring Senator Barack Obama in traditional Muslim garb and his wife, Michelle Obama, outfitted in the uniform of a 1960s militant has both the mainstream press and the blogosphere abuzz this week. David Remnick, the New Yorker's editor, took to the airwaves to defend the magazine's (poor) choice. One of his first stops was at CNN, where he told Wolf Blitzer that he believed that "context means a lot," and the fact that this cover is on the New Yorker signals that the art is satire. Of course, Mr. Remnick is right; no one familiar with the magazine's liberal--some would say pro-Obama slant--will be confused. The problem, as Senator Obama's campaign, which rebuked the cartoon as "tasteless," and most commentators have pointed out is that in the broader context of this presidential campaign, when there are so many distortions about the Obamas, this cartoon is incendiary. Hopefully Mr. Remnick and his staff will keep this in mind the next time they try to help Mr. Obama's campaign. At the same time, there should be a real lesson in this for Senator Obama as well: good intentions do not always make good politics.

For the past several months, Senator Obama has made the politics of "personal responsibility" in the black community one of his central themes. On Father's Day, Senator Obama delivered a stern message to the congregation of Chicago's Apostolic Church of God about how "too many [black] fathers were M.I.A." He also noted that "more than half of black children live in single-parent households." Sen. Obama has been lauded in the mainstream press for taking on what the New York Times called "one of the most sensitive topics in the African American community" (06/16/2008). For the most part, black Americans, who hear this kind of "tough love" doled out by their pastors and other "leaders" quite frequently, have also responded positively. Indeed, the only real public consternation that we have heard about this approach in the public sphere to date remains Reverend Jesse Jackson's whispered remarks about the senator "talking down to the black community" in the now infamous "hot mic" incident at Fox News: (

In the aftermath of the Jackson controversy, the conventional wisdom among the television pundits was that the incident was Obama's "Sista Souljah" moment; the point where he demonstrates to white America that he can speak their language and discipline blacks. This assertion set the blogosphere ablaze with debate about whether Obama's "tough love" approach to black poverty is genuine or a calculated strategy. The fact of the matter is that his sincerity is irrelevant because, just like New Yorker's cover, the rhetoric of "personal responsibility" and "black single-parent households" has deeply-rooted, negative connotations in American political campaigns. Indeed, ever since the Moynihan report pointed to the rise of single-parent households in the black community as a public policy problem, the Republicans have used this issue to deny that black inequality is rooted in the legacy of Jim Crow, de-industrialization and other structural realities of late modernity in America. Ronald Reagan's description of black single-mothers as "welfare queens" is, of course, the most notable example of this type of politics.

It is also important to note that, like the New Yorker cover, Obama's rhetoric commits several sins of omission. He never mentions in any of his speeches, for example, that the single-parent birth rate in the black community has declined: ( Senator Obama also neglects to mention that the single-parent birth rates in the white and Latino communities are exploding due to weakening economic conditions. In 1960, for example, 2.3 percent of white children lived in a single-parent home; today the rate is 22 percent. Finally, Senator Obama never mentions the well known facts that poverty is one of the best determinants of single-parent birth rates and black Americans have the lowest per capita income of any racial or ethnic group in the nation. Moreover, Senator Obama neglects to tell his black audiences that even in the 1930s and 1940s, when blacks had in-wedlock birth rates above 85 percent, they were still the poorest group in the nation.

In light of these realities, it is just as irresponsible of Senator Obama to repeatedly stand before black audiences and dress them down for their supposed pathologies as it was for the New Yorker to run that cover art. Hopefully, Senator Obama will learn from the New Yorker controversy that, despite his goodwill toward black Americans, he must broaden his "tough love" message to include other groups or continue to commit the sin of race-baiting.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Character Traits and Race

Using survey data to understand perceptions of race is tricky business because respondents are likely to give socially acceptable answers. But a few questions from the 2004 American National Election Study are revealing and provide a sense of the attitudinal hurdles Barack Obama has to clear in his historic quest to become the first African-American president.

Respondents were given "a seven-point scale on which the characteristics of the people in a group can be rated." Whites, blacks, Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans were to be rated in terms of how hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy they are. Any score of 1, 2 or 3 means the respondent thinks - more or less - that most members of the various groups are hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy. Here are the results (in terms of the percentage of respondents saying 1, 2, or 3) for whites, blacks, and Hispanics:

Whites - 53.9%
Blacks - 28.1%
Hispanics - 48.5%

Whites - 58.3%
Blacks - 35.4%
Hispanics - 33.5%

Whites - 49.2%
Blacks - 29.6%
Hispanics - 32.3%

These are simply astonishing numbers and indicate significant (and probably deep-seated) racist stereotyping. (Incidentally, the percentage saying Asians are hardworking, intelligent, and trustworthy are 66.7, 61.4, and 41.2, respectively.) Of course, Sen. Obama will, perhaps to a large extent, be viewed as an individual and, as such, will be thought to differ from most members of his race. But these numbers suggest the difficulty he'll face if race becomes a salient feature of this campaign.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Geography and Voting Behavior

In yesterday's Politico, there's a column by Joel Kotkin and Mark Schill discussing what the authors call the "three geographies" (cities, suburbs and small towns/rural communities) and the political attitudes found in them. They argue that it is these units, and not states, that really affect political behavior. It's a valid point, but it's states that count in the Electoral College, which is why they garner so much attention. At any rate, Kotkin and Schill spend most of the piece making the not so earth-shattering point that Obama is likely to win in urban areas (which they note is where 32% of the population lives) while McCain is likely to do well in rural communities/small towns (17% of the population). The battleground is likely to be in the remaining suburban areas.

Dig just a bit deeper, however, and you find that dividing places of residence into only three geographical units disguises some important differences between subsegments within those units. In fact, the 2004 exit polls revealed that while Kerry beat Bush handily in "big cities" (60% to 39%), the two tied in "smaller cities" (49% each). On the other hand, in rural communities, Bush won by a 59% to 40% margin. But "small towns" were evenly divided (50% to 48% for Bush). True to form, the suburbs were closely divided (Bush won them 52% to 47%). The point is simply that a three category distinction may hide some areas of real competition within what appear to be safely red or blue areas.

Of course, none of this recognizes the existence of the exurbs or the distinctions that can be drawn therein. For an interesting study of this geographical category, written from the strategic perspective of the Democrats, see Ruy Teixeira's 2006 report "The Next Frontier: A New Study of Exurbia."