Racism still a big roadblock for Obama

Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them "lazy," "violent," responsible for their own troubles.

The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points.

Certainly, Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He’s an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation’s oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.

More than a third of all white Democrats and independents — voters Obama can’t win the White House without — agreed with at least one negative adjective about blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don’t have such views.

Such numbers are a harsh dose of reality in a campaign for the history books. Obama, the first black candidate with a serious shot at the presidency, accepted the Democratic nomination on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech, a seminal moment for a nation that enshrined slavery in its Constitution.

"There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean there’s only a few bigots," said Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman who helped analyze the exhaustive survey.

The pollsters set out to determine why Obama is locked in a close race with McCain even as the political landscape seems to favor Democrats. President Bush’s unpopularity, the Iraq war and a national sense of economic hard times cut against GOP candidates, as does that fact that Democratic voters outnumber Republicans.

The findings suggest that Obama’s problem is close to home — among his fellow Democrats, particularly non-Hispanic white voters. Just seven in 10 people who call themselves Democrats support Obama, compared to the 85 percent of self-identified Republicans who back McCain.

The survey also focused on the racial attitudes of independent voters because they are likely to decide the election.

Lots of Republicans harbor prejudices, too, but the survey found they weren’t voting against Obama because of his race. Most Republicans wouldn’t vote for any Democrat for president — white, black or brown.

Not all whites are prejudiced. Indeed, more whites say good things about blacks than say bad things, the poll shows. And many whites who see blacks in a negative light are still willing or even eager to vote for Obama.

On the other side of the racial question, the Illinois Democrat is drawing almost unanimous support from blacks, the poll shows, though that probably wouldn’t be enough to counter the negative effect of some whites’ views.

Race is not the biggest factor driving Democrats and independents away from Obama. Doubts about his competency loom even larger, the poll indicates. More than a quarter of all Democrats expressed doubt that Obama can bring about the change they want, and they are likely to vote against him because of that.

Three in 10 of those Democrats who don’t trust Obama’s change-making credentials say they plan to vote for McCain.

Still, the effects of whites’ racial views are apparent in the polling.

Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.

But in an election without precedent, it’s hard to know if such models take into account all the possible factors at play.

The AP-Yahoo News poll used the unique methodology of Knowledge Networks, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm that interviews people online after randomly selecting and screening them over telephone. Numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to report embarrassing behavior and unpopular opinions when answering questions on a computer rather than talking to a stranger.

Other techniques used in the poll included recording people’s responses to black or white faces flashed on a computer screen, asking participants to rate how well certain adjectives apply to blacks, measuring whether people believe blacks’ troubles are their own fault, and simply asking people how much they like or dislike blacks.

"We still don’t like black people," said John Clouse, 57, reflecting the sentiments of his pals gathered at a coffee shop in Somerset, Ohio.

Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe blacks, 20 percent of all whites said the word "violent" strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with "boastful," 29 percent "complaining," 13 percent "lazy" and 11 percent "irresponsible." When asked about positive adjectives, whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.

Among white Democrats, one third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama.

The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of black America. One finding: More than a quarter of white Democrats agree that "if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites."

Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn’t.

Among white independents, racial stereotyping is not uncommon. For example, while about 20 percent of independent voters called blacks "intelligent" or "smart," more than one third latched on the adjective "complaining" and 24 percent said blacks were "violent."

Nearly four in 10 white independents agreed that blacks would be better off if they "try harder."

The survey broke ground by incorporating images of black and white faces to measure implicit racial attitudes, or prejudices that are so deeply rooted that people may not realize they have them. That test suggested the incidence of racial prejudice is even higher, with more than half of whites revealing more negative feelings toward blacks than whites.

Researchers used mathematical modeling to sort out the relative impact of a huge swath of variables that might have an impact on people’s votes — including race, ideology, party identification, the hunger for change and the sentiments of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s backers.

Just 59 percent of her white Democratic supporters said they wanted Obama to be president. Nearly 17 percent of Clinton’s white backers plan to vote for McCain.

Among white Democrats, Clinton supporters were nearly twice as likely as Obama backers to say at least one negative adjective described blacks well, a finding that suggests many of her supporters in the primaries — particularly whites with high school education or less — were motivated in part by racial attitudes.

The survey of 2,227 adults was conducted Aug. 27 to Sept. 5. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.


Associated Press writers Nancy Benac, Julie Carr Smyth, Philip Elliot, Julie Pace and Sonya Ross contributed to this story.


On the Net:

Polling site: http://news.yahoo.com/polls


  1. Flapsaddle

    Reality says otherwise: It’s not a question of whether or not the Democrats have a race problem. It’s a question of how much of a problem it is. And it has been a worry since Clinton lost and the electoral loyalty of all of those low-end white voters of hers cannot automatically be transferred to Obama.

    Regardless of what the party may advertise, the ugly truth remains that the so-called “party of the people” has a stong racist element in it. Anyone who thinks that is not the truth is being naive.

    Most sincerely,

    T. J. Flapsaddle

  2. Uncle Ludwig

    To Mr. Flapsaddle, and others who think it’s the Democrats who have a racism problem:

    • Which Party is bringing up the question of “why isn’t Obama farther ahead in the polls?” (Perhaps racism is the simplest answer…)
    • Which Party has openly encouraged inclusion of groups within its tent that are openly intolerant, such as Fundamentalist Christians, and various anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant, and white-supremacist spokespersons?
    • Which Party regularly advocates against programs that will help those who are on the fringes of society?

    Bottom line: Vote for the one you think will best serve the people of this country regardless of what they look like.

    AS for me, McCain has not demonstrated anything valuable to me that qualifies him to preside over our government. Obama, on the other hand, has demonstrated through his campaign that he knows how to organize a team, that he can raise funds with the best of them, that he is willing to put competence ahead of personal histories and connections in making personnel selections, that he can handle a variety of attacks with aplomb and can often turn those attacks deftly back onto the perpetrators.

    His reception in Europe demonstrates that at least our allies prefer him to ANY Republican at this time. His support by a number of high-ranking former military officers indicates that many folks in the military are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

    See, in spite of what Republicans keep saying, the future of the world is NOT dependent on how much military might we possess and exercise, but on how much might we DON’T exercise. Under Reagan and again under Bush/Cheney, we’ve forgotten the other half of TR’s dictum – we’ve been carrying and swinging a big stick, but we keep forgetting to speak softly when we have the chance.

    Bellicosity works occasionally when it stands out against a background of quiet steadiness, but when it becomes the norm, more of it doesn’t add any strength to one’s message. It just sounds like petulant ranting. Obama’s reasoned words now sound even more powerful against this persistent background of infantile silliness emanating from the Right.

  3. pondering_it_all

    These people may see blacks as lazy, violent, stupid, and promiscuous, but Senator Obama is none of those. Even if they have a stereotype in mind, how does that relate to a Harvard Law graduate, Constitutional Law professor, US Senator, and dedicated family man?

    My own mother is a racist (a product of her small-town Indiana upbringing) but she adores her black son-in-law! The more people get to know the real Obama, the more likely they are to see that he doesn’t fit their stereotype.

  4. Ladywolf55

    NotoriousJP, I couldn’t agree with you more.

    And to Jeepster, who thinks I’m racist, only when it comes to THUGS on the streets. And if you think they are not primarily black thugs, tell it to the woman in Westport who got shot while entering her car two nights ago because she didn’t have any money to give to the two black thugs trying to rob her. Oh, I guess you can’t, she’s dead. They shot her right in the chest before she could drive away.

  5. NotoriousJP

    I am white and I work with blacks and other races. I do not work with the knuckleheads that I see and hear all the time on the streets, buses and subways. I am not voting for the yo yo yo-ing homeboy on the subway rapping along to his IPod. Obama a Muslim? I think that we need someone who understands the Islamic world. I say that the Republicans deserve nothing for the last 8 years of misrule and even if Obama had a bone through his nose and a spear in his hand, I would still vote for him. I will be damned if I vote for the semi-senile McCain and his eventual Rapture-ready replacement. McCain will make a fine retiree, but not a good president. Race will play a part, perhaps a decisive one, in this election. However, many of us whites are very angry. We know that, at best, McCain offers nothing except more of the failed policies of Bush . We know Obama is not a knucklehead, unlike Bush. We also know that McCain is too old and gets confused. We don’t need that. Obama has a chance of winning and he has the potential of being a good president. Having said that, I am sure than Obama is just another bought and paid for politician. But he is the best one that money can buy in this election year.

  6. Ardie

    The Yahoo Stanford poll is nutty. Comment from the following site: http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/

    The commentariat’s topic du jour is this AP story which cites a study conducted in conjunction with Yahoo!, Knowledge Networks and Stanford University and which reports that “Statistical models derived from the poll suggest that Obama’s support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no white racial prejudice.” Here are some thoughts I have on the matter:

    1. It is irresponsible to cite this study without fully disclosing its methods or making it subject to peer review, particularly as it appears to use a rather convoluted soup of statistical and inferential techniques.

    2. The study appears to be one of all adults, rather than registered or likely voters. Expressions of racial prejudice have a strong inverse correlation with education levels, and so do turnout rates. Therefore, even if it is true that Barack Obama’s race puts him at something like a 6-point disadvantage with the population as a whole, the margin is probably more like 4-5 points among likely voters.

    3. A related and unresolved question is how many persons will vote for Barack Obama because he is black. Such behavior would probably be more implicit and harder to ascertain than voting against a candidate because of racial prejudice. For instance, Obama’s biography is significantly more compelling because he is black (actually, bi-racial), and his change message is probably somewhat easier to sell because he looks different than other (e.g. white) politicians. If he were white, in other words, Barack Obama would not be Barack Obama. Moreover, there may be some people who explicitly vote for Obama because they think it will advance a goal of racial equality, present a different face to the world, and so forth. In the absence of sufficient detail on the study’s methodology, it is impossible to know whether these things have been accounted for.

    4. One should be very careful not to confuse a study like this with the Bradley Effect. Of course some people are racist, and will vote against Obama because he is black — I have met some of them. But the Bradley Effect concerns something different — whether such people are likely to lie about their behavior to pollsters. There is simply no empirical evidence that the Bradley Effect exists any longer. It did not exist in the primaries, and it did not exist in the 2006 Senate race in Tennessee, which was perhaps the most racially-tinged contest of the past decade (in fact, Harold Ford slightly outperformed the late polls).

  7. nottoolate

    it’s a bit of irony that some white people would rather sell the country to the neocon right that vote for a man who has darker skin. If this is what we are as Americans, we deserve what comes next. The problem is, the rest of us will be dragged under with the fools. Strange days. Has me so confused I’m scratching my watch and winding my a$$.

  8. jeepster4

    In answer to “Ladywolf55″…not all the thugs roaming the streets in KC are black. Surely this letter is a satire illustrating the working of the racist mind, isn’t it? She is obviously confusing the drug culture with a particular race. Unfortunately it is much more of a class issue than a race issue.

  9. ridingchick

    I find it amazing that people are so willing to vote against their own interest. If Mr. Obama were white, the election would be over. There would be no way John Bush McCain could come close to winning.

    Sarah Palin could not run herself out of a paper bag, let along a country. If we end up with these two as leaders of the free world, then America gets what it deserves..A demented OLD man who has no clue about what America is all about and a Moose hunter!

    Sandra Price..Where are you? I truly miss your comments!

    Obama ’08