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Black Voters Like Obama

You don't usually find sexists by asking people if they are sexist. The data reveals more about which biases peoplethan what actual prejudices are out there.
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The big news in today's Washington Post/ABC poll is that black voters like Barack Obama. He now leads Hillary Clinton among black voters by nine points, a huge shift from last month, when the same poll found black voters preferred Clinton by a whopping 40 percent.

Reporters had jumped on that early gap to write speculative stories about Obama's supposed trouble with the "black vote." The Washington Post ran a front page article last month under the headline "Obama's Appeal to Blacks Remains an Open Question," citing Clinton's "3 to 1" edge among black Democrats. (Never mind that everything is an "open question" when the candidate hasn't even announced yet.)

Then this month, The New York Times offered a front page news flash under the headline, "So Far, Obama Can't Take Black Vote for Granted." The article quoted Debra J. Dickerson's claim that "Obama isn't black" in an American racial context, and then explored why "some black voters" are "so uneasy" about Obama. One barber explained that Obama might not be right for the Presidency because he was not "born, raised, bred, [and] fed in America." Whatever. That kind of talk has been shredded by The Nation's Patricia Williams, among others. Now these new poll numbers should remove one crutch reporters were using to write premature stories about how black voters supposedly did not like Obama "enough."

The poll has already been shooting around the blogopshere. Oliver Willis, who has written about Obama and the "black vote," argues the new poll is a reminder that the "arguments in the media and academia about Obama's 'blackness' are just kind of nonsense noise in the real world." Over at MyDD, Chris Bowers thinks that with these numbers, if Obama "continues to rise among African-Americans while maintaining his young, progressive, netroots base, it may only be a matter of three or four months before he catches Clinton in national polls."

Yet so far, the most fascinating part of the new poll has been mostly ignored. It's a section that could be called Pick Your Prejudice. (See questions 21-24.) Pollsters asked voters how certain "attributes" of a candidate -- like being black or female or smoking cigarettes -- would affect their vote. If you believe the numbers, smokers have a much bigger challenge than black or female candidates. Over 20 percent of voters say they are less likely to vote for a smoker, while only 13 percent say that about a female candidate, and a slim 6 percent say so about a black candidate. (Apparently older candidates should hang it up now: 58 percent of voters claim they are less likely to vote for "someone who is over age 72.")

Of course, like most early presidential polling, these numbers are pretty meaningless -- and probably misleading. You don't usually find sexists by asking people if they are sexist. The data reveals more about which biases people think are acceptable than what actual prejudices are out there. On that score, Mitt Romney may have a bigger challenge than Obama: 29 percent of Americans admit they are less likely to vote for someone simply for being Mormon.

Originally posted at Campaign Matters, The Nation's new blog covering Campaign '08 from the White House and Congress to the grassroots and the netroots.