Sep 1 2008

Inventing Obama’s Race Problem

Media muddle needs some sort of trouble

0213-obama-sotu-full-text_full_600Barack Obama has a race problem—though corporate media can’t quite decide what it’s supposed to be.

Take an article by New York Times political reporter Adam Nagourney published toward the end of the primary race with Hillary Clinton (5/6/08):

If Mr. Obama loses in Indiana because of white blue-collar support for Mrs. Clinton, it would be the third time in a row, after Ohio and Pennsylvania, that he has lost a big state because of an inability to win over enough of those kinds of voters.

So Obama’s problem is “white blue-collar support.” The very next paragraph, though, gives him an entirely different problem:

Mrs. Clinton has argued that those losses in a primary augur poorly for Mr. Obama in the fall; historically that is debatable, but another defeat at the hands of middle-class white voters in Indiana would add to the perception that he could lose in the general election.

Now the problem is “middle-class white voters”—a different and more serious problem, given that just about everyone in the United States considers themselves to be middle class. In the next paragraph, the problem becomes bigger still:

And should Mrs. Clinton win North Carolina, or come close, with white support for her overwhelming Mr. Obama’s presumed strength among blacks there, that would fuel the argument that he has been hurt by his ties to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

So “white blue-collar support” becomes “middle-class white voters” which becomes “white support.” While it’s unusual to see the New York Times demonstrating such solidarity—while there is a white working class, they are in it!—it’s hard to see how readers are informed by such shifting categories.

In a later piece in the New York Times (7/7/08), Nagourney’s categories had flipped again, with the reporter declaring that “Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, has had difficulty connecting with working-class voters.” Of course, Obama didn’t always have trouble with working-class votes—in Virginia, for example, exit polls gave him 64 percent of the college-educated vote and 63 percent of the non-college-educated—but had trouble in the primaries specifically among white working-class voters.

This confusion of white workers with all workers was a common feature of primary coverage—as was the assumption that working-class whites were somehow more authentic than other voters, as exemplified by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews routinely referring to them as “regular” folks (Hardball, 4/21/08, 5/2/08, 7/7/08).

But the idea that Clinton’s greater success among less-affluent whites spelled trouble for Obama with this demographic in the general election is not necessarily backed up by polls. For example, the Washington Post (7/16/08), reporting a survey comparing McCain and Obama, noted that “the candidates are tied among whites who earn less than $50,000 a year, while McCain leads by 10 percentage points among those earning more than that.”

So according to this poll, it’s well-off whites rather than working-class whites who are McCain’s main base of support. That would throw a wrench into media hand-wringing over Obama’s elitism (Extra!, 7-8/08)—and therefore the finding merited little media discussion outside the Post.

Nagourney weighed in again on the subject of Obama, race and polling with an article (7/16/08) co-bylined with Megan Thee and headlined “Poll Finds Obama Isn’t Closing Divide on Race.” That’s an odd spin on a piece that found that Obama is competitive with McCain among whites (trailing by 9 percentage points, 37 vs. 46 percent) while McCain trails Obama badly among blacks and Latinos (with an 87- and a 39-point gap, respectively). Given that the poll found Obama leading McCain among all registered voters by 45 to 39 percent, it would seem that it’s the Republican who should be more worried about closing a racial divide—or creating one.

The New York Times did its part to create such a divide with observations like, “There was even racial dissension over Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle: She was viewed favorably by 58 percent of black voters, compared with 24 percent of white voters.” The Times didn’t mention that fewer white respondents viewed McCain’s spouse favorably—20 percent—or that Michelle Obama had a net positive rating among both whites and blacks (16 percent of whites had a negative view of her), while Cindy McCain is only viewed positively by whites. As Time polling reporter Jackson Dykman noted (Swampland, 7/16/08), “Someone needs to tell me why the racial dissension is ‘over Michelle Obama.’”