Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Entering the 51-49 Zone

"On a clear day you can see forever." Unfortunately, today is a murky day in the presidential race. The McCain campaign seemed to gain the initiative with their flurry of negative ads last week but Obama hit Republicans hard today when he said that "these guys take pride in being ignorant." Who knows whether the McCain punches or the Obama counter-punches will have more effect? Looking at the polls doesn't help either. Of the three polls released today, two have Obama in the lead--one McCain. There don't seem to be any debates, foreign tours, important speeches, or other big events on the horizon either.

But the murkiness is much deeper than that. It's a murkiness in the minds of the growing number of swing voters who will ultimately decide the election.

In other words, it seems that many voters have entered the "51-49 Zone." When political observers use the term "51-49," they mean that the last two American presidential elections have been so close that the U. S. has become a "51-49" country. In many ways, the elections are even closer than that because such a large number of voters have trouble making up their minds about the candidates. In other words, a healthy percentage of voters are "51-49" in their own heads as they head into the booth on election day and still aren't very sure of themselves even after they've voted. That's the "51-49" zone.

Given the general unpopularity of the Republican Party, there was a broad expectation that there would be a swing to the Democrats among voters as a whole.

But it appears that more voters are entering the 51-49 zone instead.

The main evidence for this concerns the attitudes toward Obama among white voters. According to Juan Williams, a recent Washington Post poll shows that:
thirty percent of all voters admitted to racial prejudice, and more than a half of white voters categorized Mr. Obama as "risky" (two-thirds judged Mr. McCain the "safe" choice). Yet about 90% of whites said they would be "comfortable" with a black president. And about a third of white voters acknowledged they would not be "entirely comfortable" with an African-American president. Why the contradictory responses? My guess is that some whites are not telling the truth about their racial attitudes.

The numbers are a mass of self-contradiction. "Thirty percent of voters admit to racial prejudice," 90% of white voters "would be comfortable" with a black president, but a third would "not be entirely comfortable." It's a mess and Williams thinks that white voters are lying about their opinions concerning Obama.

I imagine some of those voters are lying. But I also think it's more appropriate to conclude that white voters as a whole have not made up their minds about what they think about race or Obama. Voters will admit to racial prejudice but they also don't like to think of themselves as prejudiced. So 2/3rds of those who said they were "prejudiced" also told pollsters they would be comfortable with an African-American president. But they contradicted themselves on that score as well and many of them admitted that they wouldn't be "entirely comfortable."

In other words, they're not entirely comfortable or entirely uncomfortable.

Of course, the murkiness in the Washington Post poll just applied to race. But July polling indicates that the number of undecided voters has been rising. Quinnipiac and CBS/New York times viewed the number of undecided as increasing from 6-8% to 12-14%. Other estimates were much higher. Gallup estimated that the number of swing voters was 23% and David Moore of Pollster.com thinks the number of swing voters might be over 40%.

Perhaps voters will move one way or another after the party conventions at the end of the month. Some gaffe, blow-up, or major event could move voters to swing toward Obama or McCain as well. I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen. My own current guess is that Obama will pull out a close race for two reasons. The first reason is that Obama is running a more controlled and mature campaign than McCain. As a result, Obama has fewer mistakes, gaffes, and self-contradictions to cast him in a negative light. The second reason is that McCain's campaign is vulnerable to bad news out of the Bush administration and there is generally a steady stream of bad news coming out about Bush scandals, torture, large-scale bankruptcies, and general recession. All of that bad news helps Obama and hurts McCain.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Spend any amount of time reading the works of bell hooks, Patricia Williams, Cornell West, etc and the picture of race relations from those who live as African-Americans in a white-male dominated United States and you learn quickly that tolerance and love and fellowship are literally skin deep and barely hide the institutional and interpersonal racism just beneath the surface. Yes, many white people lie about their racial attitudes. They very much want to SEEM enlightened yet they are very much like their grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. Barak Obama can win the presidency and I very much want that to happen. But it will be narrow and turbulent.