Why isn’t Barack Obama farther ahead of John McCain in this, a big-change election year? “The commentariat has countless answers,” writes New York‘s John Heilemann. “Obama is aloof, elitist, lacks the common touch. He has failed to put forward a powerful economic message. He is cut from the same cloth as past Democrats seen as too weak, too effete, too liberal. His calculated dash to the center has left him looking, in the words of GOP consultant Alex Castellanos, like ‘an ever-changing work-in-progress…as authentic as a pair of designer jeans.’
“Yet, as Castellanos admits to me, all these explanations ‘leave many things unspoken.’ Or perhaps just one big thing. Obama, after all, isn’t having trouble with African-American voters or Hispanic voters or young voters. Where he’s lagging is among white voters, and with older ones in particular. Call me crazy, but isn’t it possible, just possible, that Obama’s lead is being inhibited by the fact that he’s, you know… black?
“‘Of course it is,’ says another prominent Republican operative. ‘It’s the thing that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s obviously a huge factor.’
“What makes Obama’s task of scoring white votes at Kerry-Gore levels so formidable is, to put it bluntly, racial prejudice. Difficult though it is to measure, the exit polls from the Democratic primaries offer a sense of the degree to which anti-black animus hurt Obama in his battle with Hillary Clinton. In a number of key swing states, the percentage of voters who backed Clinton and who said that ‘the race of the candidates’ was ‘important’ in their decision was alarmingly high: in New Jersey, 9; in Ohio and Pennsylvania, more than 11.
“The writer John Judis reckons, therefore, that in the general election (where the voting population is markedly less liberal than in the primaries) in those states, ’15 to 20 percent of Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents may not support [Obama] for the same reason.'”
“What’s clear is that among older, less-educated white voters, there is a pronounced, albeit inchoate, unease with Obama’s ‘otherness’ — one that the McCain operation is moving swiftly to exploit, with what promises to be an increasingly race-freighted campaign.
“The images in its recent ads are ingeniously coded, and thus easily misread (or denied). The Paris Hilton-Britney Spears commercial, for instance, was interpreted by many on the left as raising the specter of miscegenation. But the real subtext of the ad was to paint Obama as a featherweight figure whose fame is undeserving, the result of ‘natural’ gifts as opposed to hard work or skill.
“As Adam Serwer argued in The American Prospect, ‘the ad never mentions Obama’s race as the source of his celebrity, but it doesn’t have to — it’s been part of the campaign long enough for the point to be implicit. In short, this ad is Geraldine Ferraro’s attack done `right,’ in the sense that it does not directly implicate the McCain campaign as exploiting racial tensions.'”.