Will race be the deciding factor in battleground Missouri?

Kansas City StarOctober 5, 2008 

Four years ago, one yard in a working-class Kansas City suburb sported a "Kerry" sign bigger than a bed mattress.

But this season there's no "Obama" sign there of any size, not even throw-pillow dimension.

"It's the 'B-L-A-C-K' issue," a neighbor explained. "You hear it everywhere."

But it hardly has to be spelled out for most of us that race has been injected into presidential politics in unprecedented ways.

Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father and white American mother, is rewriting the history of an America shackled since inception by racial divide.

Missouri has been at the crux of that old story and is at its crux now.

A swing state, a bellwether, it looks like a jump ball once again. But could Obama, positioning himself as a post-racial candidate, be pulled down by racism there?

No one knows, but many are wondering.

Social trends, past elections, black enthusiasm and polls, polls, polls offer some clues, but no amount of analytical scrubbing can make transparent a voter's bias, said polling expert Scott Keeter.

"The election itself is the checkup."

An Obama loss Nov. 4 in deep red Kansas will pass without much mention. But in pink-trending Missouri, it promises to attract national scrutiny, especially if white Democrats do well in other statewide races.

Should he lose, said Brad Stokes, a union official in Springfield who is white, "it would be a shame to tell our kids the reason was that race was part of it. And for some of our members, it may be."

Others will point to a lack of experience or opposition to a war many say we're now winning. And a liberal agenda always turns off many rural Missourians, especially.

"I love my black friends, and yet I almost felt racist because I didn't like him,” said a white lifelong Democrat, Jeanine Spees.

"Too ambitious. Not sincere," said the 70-year-old Independence woman, who's upset at how Hillary Clinton was treated. "Now… is that racist?"

Forty-one percent said no when the Gallup polling group dialed up Americans to ask: "If your party nominated a well-qualified man for president and he happened to be a Negro, would you vote for him?"

That was August 1961, the month Obama was born.

Gallup again raised the question last December, rewording it to make your party's nominee a "well-qualified person … who happened to be black."

Five percent said no.

They're quieter and probably fewer today, the experts say.

Still, how many racists does it take to screw up an election?

It's not a joke. And the answer is: Not very many in a close one.

An exhaustive study released last month by The Associated Press-Yahoo News, with help from Stanford University, offered up complex statistical models suggesting that prejudice was costing Obama as much as six percentage points in support among white Democrats and independent voters nationwide.

It may not sound like a huge bloc, but six points are enough to bury many politicians.

A late September poll conducted by Research 2000 for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and KMOV-TV showed John McCain had a 56 to 38 percent advantage among Missouri's white voters.

"It's very much about race," said Jumoke Balogun, an African-American senior at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, at a recent roundtable sponsored by The Kansas City Star and KCUR-FM.

"If you look at it, it's a Democratic year," she said. "You have an unpopular president. You have John McCain, who's messing up in some ways. But you have Obama struggling to win people over."

At that gathering, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat, and Mayor Carson Ross of Blue Springs, a Republican, disagreed on Obama's chances. But both said voters in largely white, rural Missouri needed to feel "familiarity" with a candidate.

That showed up in the Democratic primary, Cleaver said.

"Keep in mind Hillary Clinton won in … 110 counties. Barack Obama won in four. That is a signal of the difficulty ahead."

"I wouldn't put Missouri high up in terms of the states on Obama's list," said David Bositis at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, which conducts and studies race-related surveys.

For any candidate of color, he said, "Missouri — it's iffy."

Nationally, about a third of white Democrats and independents harbor at least a partly negative view of black people, according to the recent AP-Yahoo News poll. The whites linked them with one or more unfavorable adjectives such as "violent," "boastful" or "irresponsible."

At least as many Republicans harbored biases, too. But the survey found most of them wouldn't back any Democrat — black, brown or white.

The survey used unconventional methods to tap prejudices so deeply ground that people may not realize they have them. Respondents were randomly selected by telephone and then interviewed online, where images of black and white faces competed for screen time.

Eighty-eight percent of likely black voters in Missouri expect to vote for Obama, according to a Research 2000 poll from September.

Flip the "skin color matters to me" coin and you find another side.

"Race plays such a huge role in this election in terms of African-Americans who've never voted before or (who) really don't care about the elected process," said Balogun, who originally backed Joe Biden for president. "They don’t know about policy, either. They're just voting on race."

African-Americans, who have voted for Caucasians for generations — when they were allowed — are showing great excitement over a real chance to finally break the white lock on the White House.

It wasn't so long ago that much of the black community thought the statistical probability of an African-American president of the United States was about the same as ice water in hell. Now you hear the amazement again and again, from film director Spike Lee to Cleaver: "Never thought I'd see it in my lifetime."

"To have an African-American up there at this moment? This early? This soon?" exclaimed Charlie Clay, 64, a black travel agent and associate pastor at New Home Church of God and Christ in Kansas City. "Given how we're still so far behind in this country, this is a phenomenon. Almost like a divine intervention."

Many take heart in how Obama's racial mix brings its own offsetting benefits, such as bringing more minorities to the polls, deepening voter-registration pools and inspiring many white voters tired of the same-old in Washington and wanting a "change" in America that they can see.

Cleaver, who has the smallest black constituency among black U.S. House members, said he saw signs "at least in certain parts of the state that people will transcend race when they walk into the voting booth."

Carl Mahoney, a GOP-leaning white voter from Kansas City, said he was rooting for McCain last year. But the closer McCain moved toward the more conservatives stances of the Bush administration, the more the psychologist backed away.

"With increasing certitude," Mahoney said, he is now considering voting for Obama for a variety of reasons — including his potential to help race relations.

"He's smartly not rubbing white people's noses in the racist prejudices and policies of American history," said Mahoney, 56. "He's not slamming whitey … and that's left an impact on me."

Grandview independent voter Kimberly Roller first saw Obama speak on TV at the 2004 Democratic convention.

"I'd never even heard of him and I thought: 'Wow, nice. Mixed race, just like me. … And he's not bashing white people for all the problems black people have faced.'

"I'm not saying we forget the past. We can't forget slavery. But we have to get beyond the past and improve our lives."

Post-racial, Obama and other young black politicians call these times.

"The people I work with are the new black politics," Cornell Belcher, 38, a pollster for Obama, told The New York Times.

Speaking of those who spent their lives breaking down racial barriers, he said: "We don't carry around that history. We see the world through post-civil-rights eyes. I don't mean that disrespectfully, but that’s just the way it is."

Ask the diverse millions of Americans who idolize Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Will Smith, Michael Jordan. Or Obama himself — who steers around racial topics except in retelling his mixed-race upbringing.

But "post-racial" doesn’t apply to all.

Thirty-three percent of white Democrats ascribed at least two unfavorable adjectives to blacks in the AP-Yahoo poll. But 58 percent of those Democrats said they would vote for Obama.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union endorsed Obama, said Stokes, the business manager of Local 753 in the Springfield region. That was seen as a crucial tipping point for Democrats statewide. But union members appear racially resistant to Obama.

"As much as I'd love to say that isn't happening, I think it is," he said. "The same probably would've happened on the gender side if Hillary Clinton had been the candidate."

Commentator Rush Limbaugh denounced the AP-Yahoo poll: Just liberals preparing for post-election, when they'll blame racism for Obama's defeat.

"I’ll tell you, if I were one of you blue-collar, white, union-member Democrats, you've got to look at this poll as Obama and The Associated Press identifying you as bigots. You're the reason he's not going to win. They're calling you racist.

"They will rewrite the outcome not as a difference of policy and experience, but racism winning out over hope and change. 'Oh, America, we’re still mired in the muck of slavery. We haven't changed at all. We still suck as a nation.' This, folks, is as grotesque as it gets.

"Meanwhile, whites will not be voting 95 percent for McCain. Blacks will be voting 95 percent for Obama."

He might have been talking to Bill Norman, 71, a former truck driver in Independence — a straight-party Democrat and proud "redneck who believes in God and guns."

He has voted for African-Americans, Alan Wheat and Cleaver, for Congress, he said. But he won't for Obama, whom he called "unelectable" in a letter to The Kansas City Star.

Readers were quick to accuse Norman of bigotry.

"I never mentioned the man's race," he retorted. "I guess if you're white and against him, you're a racist. If you're black and against him, you're a traitor. … I just think he’s a double-talker (who) has spent more time campaigning than serving in the U.S. Senate.

"I'm not going to lie to you — my dad was racist," said the devout fan of the Clintons. "I don’t know if you can dismiss your upbringing completely … but I'm trying to live in times when the world's changing. Change doesn't bother me."

What did bother him, plenty, were remarks Obama made in San Francisco about "bitter" small-town folks who "cling to guns or religion." Nor did the divisive rhetoric of the senator's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, help.

Now, when Norman hears Obama, "I don’t believe a word he says."

Twenty-six percent said no when asked by a June CBS News poll: "Would most people you know vote for a black candidate?"

On his first day as an Obama volunteer phoning undecided voters in Jackson County, where Kansas City is locatred, Clay was encouraged that even those not supporting his candidate seemed patient, even courteous, on the phone.

Then a fellow phone-banker, 61 and white, leaned over to Clay: "I mean no offense to you, but I just got off the phone with a man who told me flat out that America isn't ready for a black president.

"I am hearing that, sorry to say."

It is getting harder for researchers to spot racists in random samples. Confessing to racial bias is so rare, so taboo, pollsters don't think much about the 5 percent who say they wouldn't vote for a qualified black candidate.

The pollsters are fixated, however, on the mystery of how many in the other 95 percent are honest about being unbiased.

"The short answer is, we don't know," said Keeter, who directs survey research for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"You can't just ask a question and then say, 'Are you lying?' "

One percent is Obama's lead in Missouri, found by a CNN/Time survey over the last three days of September. Three weeks earlier, the same pollsters had given McCain a five-point advantage. A Real Clear Politics average of recent state polls, however, indicates the Republican may enjoy a 1.7-point advantage, still a statistical tie.

"The patterns of support are very similar to Kerry's — and to Gore's before that," said Gallup editor Frank Newport. "The Republican and Democratic candidates were running close then, and they're close now."

Researchers have sliced up the demographics from exit polls in the 2004 voting, matched them against recent Gallup data and found Obama doing slightly better than Kerry among non-Hispanic white voters and much better among Hispanic voters.

In Missouri, John Kerry lost to George W. Bush in 2004 by 7.2 percentage points. Al Gore lost by 3.3 in 2000.

Polls show older white voters in Missouri less likely to declare for the Democrat from Illinois. Polls show the same across most of the country.

But here's the rub: Older white Missourians in recent years were less likely to vote for Kerry and Gore, too.

When you look nationally at all retirement-age voters, regardless of race, Obama's support holds steady to Kerry's.

It's only when the experts cross-tabulate race, age and education that they begin to notice some slippage — mostly among older, white, small-town men with a high school education or less.

Claire McCaskill, strong in the urban areas like most Democrats, snared enough small-town votes to take a U.S. Senate seat from a GOP incumbent in 2006.

Cleaver wants Obama to "jump in the van" and follow her path into the small towns.

"My fear is, his handlers in Chicago are not as confident that we have the ability to win in Missouri as I am."

Fifteen percentage points is Obama's advantage among voters younger than 30, according to a mid-September Gallup survey.

Last summer, when Obama was drawing huge crowds overseas, Republicans sarcastically dubbed him "The One."

If he's not "The One" for Christopher White, a black political science student at UMKC, he'll do for now.

"More than anything, more than his skin color, his character will help him. That will outweigh him being black.

"Being black is a bonus, because there are (negative) stereotypes of a black man that are still out there on us," said the 31-year-old Kansas Citian. "When he conducts himself in a totally opposite way, you have to examine what's real and what's not."

"Bonus" was the word also used by Travis Strawn, 23, a white political science student at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley. He prefers the Democrat's policy positions, but electing a black president, he said, "will help reduce racial tension over the long run. The more we can do to get rid of racial issues, the better."

Obama has tried to run a campaign that doesn't so much de-emphasize race as try to render it irrelevant.

"Jesse Jackson ran an in-your-face campaign that spawned from the rhetoric of the civil-rights movement," agreed the Rev. Eric Williams of Calvary Temple Baptist Church in Kansas City. "And America has shown that that's not going to work."

Rich Lawson, one of the Rusty Zipper Club, a group of graying men who meet every day for cards and coffee at Heroes Restaurant in Warrensburg., Mo., welcomes any improvement in the racial dialogue.

"If Obama brings anything to the table on the race problem, that's great," said Rich Lawson, 62, a white stockbroker who prefers McCain. "But if it's the kind of rhetoric that his former church leader put out? Elevating that whole arena of bitterness and hate isn't going to help anything."

Obama eventually separated himself from Wright, saying that he understood the anger over past injustices but that the country had moved on.

Another flap was with Jesse Jackson. After Obama had called for black men to take more responsibility for caring for their children, Jackson was caught on an open microphone saying he wanted "to cut his nuts out" for "talking down to black folks." Jackson was loudly chastised — including by his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., an Obama backer from the start.

That went over well with the Rusty Zipper set.

"Obama's the one who got Jesse Jackson to shut up," noted Democrat Delbert Bodenhamer.

Those around him at Heroes broke into applause.

Twelve percent of white Democratic voters in Pennsylvania’s primary told ABC News exit-pollers that race was an important consideration. Nearly half of that 12 percent said they would vote for McCain or stay home if Obama were their party's nominee.

Missouri voted twice for Bill Clinton. Virginia rejected him twice. Yet Obama leads slightly in the Real Clear Politics average of September polls in Virginia, but not in Missouri. Why the difference?

One, it could be the larger and energized black population of Virginia. It could also be the Gov. Douglas Wilder factor. The black candidate broke the ceiling in Virginia in 1989.

Wheat is the only African-American from a major party to run in Missouri for statewide office. In the 1994 Senate race, Republican John Ashcroft, then a former governor, crushed Wheat 60 to 36 percent.

In presidential politics, "the race question isn't a national one, it's state by state: Where is there a previous history of electing black candidates statewide?" said researcher Bositis. "In a target state like Virginia, there's an actual history."

There — as in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana — "you don't have to worry what the polls say," Bositis said. "The voters have done it."

Asked whether Obama's race will hurt him or help him, 22 percent said "yes" in response to a Pew question. Black respondents were more likely than whites to say his race would hurt; whites more likely to say it would help. Half of everyone polled said it would make no difference.

The currents of race in this election have been subtle, and they have been blatant.

In the beginning, one heard questions whether Obama was black enough. Much of the black leadership signed on early with the better-known Hillary Clinton. Then came Obama's win in nearly lily-white Iowa. White guilt, some sniped.

Suddenly, people like former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro were getting criticized for saying that race was unfairly helping Obama, that he would have been just one more rookie senator without that factor.

Bill Clinton stirred the pot a bit and still hasn't gotten over being accused of playing the race card in South Carolina. Tapes of Wright's flaming sermons seemed on continuous video loops on TV. Then came the primary polls across Appalachia. In Kentucky, for instance, one in five white voters called race an important factor in their vote.

Pollster John Zogby: "As a researcher I breathed a sigh of relief that we can expect truth. But as a human being, part of me would rather they go back to their closets."

In the general election, Republicans have been very careful how they say what they say. Obama, similarly, has taken pains not to come across as the angry black man.

One of the few times race arose was in July as Obama rolled along Interstate 44 and told Rolla residents: "What they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. 'You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills, you know. He's risky.' That's essentially the argument they're making."

Fired back McCain campaign manager Rick Davis: "Obama has played the race card, and he played it from the bottom of the deck. It's divisive, negative, shameful and wrong."

In Iowa, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas in September accused unnamed Republicans of using "code language" to convince Midwesterners that Obama is different from them.

Gov. David Paterson of New York said he thought he heard one.

"I think the Republican Party is too smart to call Barack Obama 'black' in a sense that it would be a negative. But you can take something about his life, which I noticed they did at the Republican Convention — a 'community organizer.' They kept saying it. They kept laughing."

Democratic volunteers in rural Carroll County, Mo., say Obama bashers use another time and again: "Muslim."

Obama is Christian, but 12 percent of both Democrats and Republicans polled in July said he was Muslim. Fueled by conservative Internet sites, the number has risen slightly since spring. Interestingly, more than a third of this group said they will still vote for him.

Limbaugh has complained: "You just can't criticize the little black man-child. You just can't do it, because it's just not right, it's not fair. He's such a victim."

So will race matter in Missouri next month?

Said Democratic consultant Steve Glorioso, an election veteran for 36 years:

"I don’t think I’ll live long enough that race won't" matter.

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