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Andrea Calo 25th Apr 2008 - 12:04

Obama’s race a not-so-unique problem

CNN thinks it might have spotted the Achilles heel of Barack Obama’s political campaign. US election voters might not vote for him, CNN says, because he’s black.

A news story from the prestigious American news channel’s Washington Bureau says, “Some political observers believe Obama might have a unique problem because he’s African-American.”

Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stair. Voters in the USA might consider not voting for a candidate on the basis of his race? The land of the free, where 44 per cent of prisoners (now including Wesley Snipes) but only 16 of the top 1,000 chief executives are black? This is hardly news, surely?

Hundreds, if not thousands, of political punters in this country and elsewhere are betting against Obama for precisely this reason.

Actually, what CNN are referring to is a problem that Neil Kinnock will be all too familiar with. The political analysts quoted have realised that voters often say they’ll do one thing but, when alone with the ballot box, will do another.

So, they think, presidential election voters might say they don’t consider Obama’s race to be an issue – but when it comes to putting a cross in a box, a lot of them will vote according to precisely those racial prejudices they’ve been denying existed. In the States they call it “the Wilder effect” after a black Virginian politician who ran for office in the 1980s and lost despite a healthy showing in the pre-election polls.

Most famously in the UK, Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party lost the 1992 general election after exit polls showed they would win. Analysts have blamed many things for the public’s election U-turn, from the pleasantly clement weather persuading voters to feel more well-disposed to the current government to Kinnock’s ginger hair, which they believed prejudiced many voters against him, despite what they had said to the pollsters.

And that very point illustrates why CNN is still barking up the wrong tree with this story: Obama’s race does not mean he has a “unique problem”.

So the US public might be more racist than it admits to: this is very believable (and not so unique either, as British politicians like Oona King might testify). But it might also be more sexist, or more ageist, than it admits to, too. And that's why Hillary Clinton won't be turning cartwheels over this news story.

There might be a lot of voters out there who say they’d happily see a woman running their country – but again, when faced with the ballot paper, might decide that, when all’s said and done, it’s a bloke’s job.

Which might lead them to consider John McCain. But then, who would be surprised if more than a few people decided that running a global superpower was no job for a coffin dodger? Some people might consider that Reagan put in an eight-year shift at the job while most Brits his age were travelling for free on buses; but then “Dutch” was a lot younger than McCain when he first clocked in.

Needless to say, none of these things should matter. There’s no reason why race, age or gender will stop the winning candidate from being a great, useless or average president. But all three will factor to some degree in millions of voters’ minds, no matter how wrong you may consider that to be. And it will be a foolish punter who believes that Barack faces the prejudice problem alone.


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