By Bill Boyarsky
After enduring the silly debate over who injected race into the presidential campaign, let’s look at some recent numbers that indicate how Barack Obama could win this close election.
First, we’ll dispose of the debate over who made race an issue.
Obama did, merely by being black, running and becoming a contender. Obama’s African-American, isn’t he? Isn’t that evident to anyone who sees him? Do we need John McCain, Obama’s Republican opponent, to remind us of that? If Obama wins, isn’t every story going to begin with America electing its first African-American president? Doesn’t that automatically make his race a subject of huge interest in a country with a long history of racism?
Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod, a Chicago veteran of urban ethnic politics, don’t need me or any other journalist to tell them something they must have known before the campaign began. I’m sure they ran many focus groups and took in-depth polls on the subject. I bet Axelrod has gamed the race issue to death. So don’t tell me Obama was taken by surprise when race became the best-played political story last week, according to a Project for Excellence in Journalism study of campaign coverage.
Perhaps Obama could have handled it better by not getting bogged down in the debate. But that’s his fault, and Axelrod’s. They’ve got nothing to whine about.
Now to the numbers. The national polls show the election remains close. Even some Republican strategists are surprised that Obama’s Afghanistan-to-London tour didn’t give him more of a boost. State polls compiled by Pollster.com also point to close races with McCain leading in the highly contested battleground states of Nevada, Colorado, Missouri and Indiana, and Obama ahead in Virginia.
But other surveys point to a victory path for Obama if he can focus unrelentingly on the tanking economy, on gasoline and on increasingly expensive and unavailable medical care.
That’s the message found in a poll taken June 18 to July 7 by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, The Washington Post and Harvard University. The pollsters contacted 1,350 randomly selected workers who earn $27,000 or less last year and who worked 30 hours a week or more. Their ages ranged from 18 to 64.
The poll, released by Kaiser and available on the Web, did not break down the results by race. But a story in the Post Aug. 4, using the survey’s unpublished racial figures, had such an analysis.
The survey found that Obama had a 2-to-1 lead among these low-paid workers. Most important for his candidacy, he was ahead of McCain 47 percent to 37 percent among white workers. A total of 16 percent said they had no opinion, supported someone else or did not plan to vote.
The poll showed widespread concern about the economy, fuel prices and health care, but those surveyed were pessimistic about whether either candidate could fix the troubles. Still, Obama led among voters who felt these issues were most important. They felt Obama empathized more with them and more closely shared their values.
Post reporters Michael B. Shear and Jon Cohen wrote that the survey “suggests that Obama’s economic appeal has the most resonance with white voters who are under the greatest financial stress. He leads by 19 percentage points among those white workers who feel ‘very insecure’ financially; that is more than double his advantage among those in the group who feel better off.”
The importance of Obama focusing on the economy was also pointed out in a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & The Press, taken between July 23 and 27.
Just 10 percent of those surveyed said the economy was in good shape. Almost two-thirds said their incomes were not keeping up with the cost of living. More than 70 percent said good jobs were hard to find.
Granted, Obama’s race makes polling difficult. The Wall Street Journal, in a story on polling problems Aug. 22, quoted Peter Hart, a Democrat on a bipartisan team conducting the Journal/NBC News poll, as estimating that 10 percent of current Democrats and independents who say they support Obama may not be telling the truth. “This election is exceptionally tricky,” he said.
Obama certainly has not been able to transcend race, as his backers hoped. But nobody can transcend race in this world. If you don’t believe me, visit some other countries.
Obama, however, doesn’t have to transcend race, or become some sort of mythical post-racial figure. He has to convince a majority of voters, especially in the battleground states, that he’s the one who can lead us out of the economic morass and out of Iraq.
The Pew poll indicates the economy can trump race. While a quarter of white working-class voters surveyed said Obama would do too much for blacks, 43 percent said McCain would do too much for the wealthy.
The economy is McCain’s greatest weakness. The old sailor sounds like he’s out to sea when he talks about it. The economy, along with high prices and medical care, is what Obama should be talking about. Everyone knows he’s black. It’s up to Obama to make them say, “So what?”
AP photo / Alex Brandon