Obama's dilemma

Author: John Monczunski

If Barack Obama becomes the Democratic candidate for president, would you vote for him?

If you are white and a black poll taker asks you that question, Notre Dame political scientist Darren Davis says 10 to 13 percent of you are likely to say “yes” and then vote for someone else. Public opinion researchers call such behavior the “social desirability effect”—when someone gives what they believe is the desired response rather than their true response—and it’s one of the things that make assessing the Illinois senator’s support so tricky.

In a study conducted last summer, Davis and his colleague, David Wilson of the University of Delaware, found that Obama’s support was affected even by the words used to signify his racial identity. When identified as “black” rather than “African American,” the Illinois senator running for the Democratic presidential nomination fared better with the white majority. Conversely, African Americans were more supportive of Obama when he was labeled “African American.”

“[W]hites perceive a certain amount of threat in racial labels,” Davis and Wilson explain. “The ‘African American’ label seems to convey that African Americans are attempting to alter the racial hierarchy and their positions in society, thereby threatening whites’ sense of group position and impinging on their prerogatives.”

For Obama to succeed he needs to continue with a “deracialized” campaign strategy, emphasizing issues of broad appeal, the political scientists argue. But that presents a dilemma: As Obama strengthens his white support, he alienates his black support.

Davis believes that Obama’s best solution for shoring up his black support while not eroding his white base comes in the form of key endorsements from well-known and respected people in the black community who are not threatening to the white community. “This is a problem he will not be able to solve directly himself,” the Notre Dame professor says.

Oprah Winfrey’s seal of approval was helpful in that regard, Davis says, and an endorsement from a figure such as Denzel Washington would carry a great deal of weight as well. In contrast, Davis says, an endorsement from either Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton would likely cost more votes than it would gain since the white community regards them as threatening, polarizing figures.