This week, the media is widely speculating about the factor of race in presidential politics, though not how you'd usually think. Here they're not talking about the general election, and whether white people will vote for a minority candidate; they're talking about whether black voters will support Barack Obama.
Here again, they're not talking about the general election. About 90% of African Americans voted for the Democrat in 2004, and barring some cataclysmic event, that's not changing in 2008. Instead, the pundits are asking how Obama will perform with African Americans in the Democratic primaries.
Now, keep in mind that the majority of Democrats, regardless of race, are undecided about Obama. A recent CBS news poll shows that 58% of Democratic voters "haven't heard enough" to rate him favorably or not. But don't be surprised when, in the next few weeks, you see the media touting polls of African American voters and using them to rate Obama's meteoric rise.
In Out of Order, the seminal study of presidential election press coverage, Thomas Patterson writes that the media will create the types of candidates it needs in order to make every possible day of the race interesting. There's the 'frontrunner,' a 'likely loser' or two, a 'bandwagon' candidate worth watching, and a 'losing ground' candidate who's even more worth watching.
But it can get pretty boring if they're all just running in place.
So, expect the press to flaunt polls of African American voters like no election before -- especially if Obama dominates early on and has only one way to go: down. As Dayton Duncan once said about the media and polls, "They create it, pay for it, and then report on it."
Accompanying these polls, we can also expect a variety of 'Cavutos' on our television sets: 'Can Clinton Dent Obama's Black Support?' 'Will S. Carolina Shun Obama For A Southerner Like Edwards?' 'Sharpton's Run: A Statement About Obama & Black Leadership?'
Just this past Monday, the Fox News banner carried this juicy Cavuto: "Honoring The Dream: Is Obama's Charm Lost On America's Black Activists?" In a segment "honoring the memory" of Dr. King, anchor Martha MacCallum asked, "Why aren't the black leaders -- the Jesse Jacksons, the Al Sharptons of the world -- coming out in vocal support of Barack Obama?"
Well, there can be many reasons, but if the black community is split, it isn't particularly earth-shattering. In the 2004 South Carolina primary, African Americans were almost 50% of the electorate, and their support was all over the place. Fellow Carolinian John Edwards's southern appeal with the community contributed to his large statewide win. Al Sharpton spent a lot of time in the state and ran hard. Representative Jim Clyburn, the highest ranking African American politician in the House, came out in support of John Kerry. And Wes Clark had a group called the "Buffalo Soldiers" canvassing black precincts.
Sure, Obama is the strongest African American candidate since Jesse Jackson, and the issue of race is inherent to any conversation about him. But the black vote is not the yardstick to measure him by in the primaries.
And neither are the staples of other politically prominent African Americans. On Tuesday night's episode of Hardball, Chris Matthews asked this jaw-dropping question to Eugene Robinson.
What do you think about the problem -- you know, I watched this with Jesse Jackson, a man who's played a big role in history, and because he doesn't hold elected office, he has to pull these stunts, he has to show up at rallies, he has to go to where there's trouble -- fishing troubled waters. Do you think Barack Obama, Gene, has to spend a lot of time between now and next year where the primaries and caucuses are held, coming up with stunts to keep himself in the news?
Where to begin?
Oh yeah: by turning the TV off.