Race is a difficult subject to talk and write about. Although the blogosphere is rarely shy, mainstream journalists often tread lightly for fear of giving offense or indulging in stereotypes. Political candidates sometimes slyly play the race card, but rarely overtly. Not eager to call attention to race as an issue, the Obama campaign plays it down as a factor in the election. But if an Obama adviser were writing an honest memo to the candidate, here's how it might read:
The good news is that you have all but won the nomination. The bad news, if we are willing to face reality, is that the country—some parts of it, anyway—may not be ready to elect a black president of the United States. It is hard to get a precise fix on the problem. Voters generally deny to pollsters that race is a factor in casting their votes, but when they step into the privacy of the polling booth, their prejudices can sometimes emerge. Probably only a tiny fraction of voters are outright racist. But race is not irrelevant to many others, black or white; exit polls vary greatly by state, but show that 10 to 30 percent of primary voters considered race as they voted (if white, those voters broke overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton; if African-American, they voted for you).
NEWSWEEK pollsters recently created a "Racial Resentment Index" to measure the impact of race on the 2008 election. White voters were asked a series of 10 questions about a variety of race-related topics, including racial preferences in hiring, interracial marriage—and what they have "in common" with African-Americans. About a third of these voters scored "high" on this index; 29 percent of all white Democrats did. Overwhelmingly, these Democrats are the ones most likely to defect to John McCain in the fall. (Among "High RR" white Democratic voters, according to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Clinton leads McCain by 77 percent to 18 percent, while you win by only 51 percent to 33 percent.) Many Democratic voters in West Virginia interviewed by a NEWSWEEK reporter on primary night, May 13, did not hide their animus toward you as a kind of exotic alien. Menina Parsons, 45, said she will not vote for Obama in the general election because "I don't think he's real. I don't think he's American."
Some commentators have said that your problem is not with race—it's with geography. The Daily Kos Web site recently posted a map that makes the point: the majority of counties in which more than 65 percent of whites voted for Clinton closely track Appalachia—the mountainous region running from New York into the Deep South, where voters tend to be somewhat less well-off and less well educated than in other parts of the country. These same commentators note that you have done well in other mostly white, rural states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Oregon. That's all true, and it's important not to exaggerate the scale of the problem.
But Appalachia is a big place, encompassing 13 states: southwestern New York, western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, West Virginia, western Maryland, western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, western North and South Carolina, and northern Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. You cannot afford to lose all those states and still win in November. Other pollsters have suggested that the race factor is at least noticeable in a much wider swath of rural America, where 60 million voters reside. One recent Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll of rural voters in battleground states showed that you are trailing McCain by 9 points (and that Clinton runs even with him). Dee Davis, president of a Kentucky-based advocacy group called the Center for Rural Strategies, points out in a recent article on Salon.com that in June 2004, John Kerry trailed George W. Bush by the same 9-point margin in the same rural battlegrounds.
Your mission is to not wind up like Kerry, who ended up losing the rural vote by 20 points. The "reality," writes Davis, "is that when Democratic candidates run competitively in rural America, they win national elections. And when they get creamed in rural America, they lose."
It's certainly true that race helps with some demographics. African-American voters have been your dependable base; in almost every state you have won 90 percent of the black vote or better. There are 600,000 unregistered black voters in Georgia; bring them out in November and you may break the GOP's hold on the Solid South, or at least partially offset votes for McCain. Many better-educated and younger voters want to cast a vote for a black man who seems to transcend old-style racial politics—and who can project a different face of America to a skeptical multicultural, multiethnic world. You have won over "Obamicans" who admire you, at least in part, as proof that affirmative action is no longer necessary. And you have won millions of voters with a vision of one America created from many.
But the message of change, of a new world order, is unsettling to some voters, particularly older ones. Far from Appalachia, there are some disturbing pockets of fearfulness. A New York Times front-page story last week was headlined AS OBAMA HEADS TO FLORIDA, MANY OF ITS JEWS HAVE DOUBTS. Some whom the Times interviewed suspected that Obama was not sufficiently pro-Israel, while others mentioned the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. fiasco or Michelle Obama's remark that your electoral success made her "for the first time" in her life "really proud" of her country. The article quoted Ruth Grossman, the 80-year-old resident of a gated community, saying, "They'll pick on the minister thing, they'll pick on the wife, but the major issue is color." Grossman told the Times she is thinking of voting for Obama, but said, "I keep my mouth shut." True, only 5 percent of Florida voters are Jewish. But you need them: while Clinton currently leads McCain in Florida, you trail him.
The Internet has been a sluice for lies and distortions about your religion and background. It is widely and falsely rumored that you are Muslim (in the NEWSWEEK Poll, 11 percent of voters believe you are); that you chose to be sworn in to the Senate using a Qur'an rather than a Bible, and that you refuse to place your hand over your heart for the singing of the national anthem because, you are imagined to have said, "the anthem conveys a warlike message." As a recent post on Politico.com points out, there is a "Genealogy of Barack Hussein Obama" making the Web rounds, helpfully illustrated by pictures of your dark-complexioned relatives dressed in African garb. The message is not subtle: it says that Barack Obama is not a "real American."
You must confront this slur, with more force than you have shown so far. If you do not, you will be defined by your enemies and the Web, a dangerous combination. You movingly told your life story in a book that's become a best seller. And lately, you have wisely taken to often wearing an American-flag lapel pin. It would help to be seen venerating your white mother and grandparents as well as your black father. Your mother is a sympathetic figure, fighting to raise a child out of poverty. It is a good thing that this summer you are scheduled to go to the grave site of your grandfather, a World War II vet whose coffin was draped with the American flag when he died in 1992. Voters need to know that he, much more than your father who lived far away, was the man who raised you. Voters need to know that you are definitely not John Kerry, who was raised to wealth and privilege, an Ivy Leaguer educated, for a time, at a French boarding school.
Still, telling your story can be a little difficult. The fact is, your father's family was Kenyan; you grew up, in part, abroad in Indonesia (and Hawaii, which is a foreign land to some), and you went to Harvard. You can't rouse a crowd like Willie Stark did in "All the King's Men," calling them "hicks," knowing that they will love you because you are a hick, too. You cannot pretend to be something that you are not. Your staff is preparing speeches on patriotism; you should have no problem proving your love for a country that has nurtured and rewarded you. Throwing a grand ole Fourth of July barbecue also sends the right message, and campaign aides say you may make a speech about gun ownership, reaffirming your belief in the right to bear arms. But don't overdo it and pretend you love to hunt and fish. Men and women raised in hardscrabble country can spot a phony quicker than a squirrel can spot an acorn.
It's also important for you not to play the race card yourself. You can't imply, or be seen to imply, that anyone who criticizes you is a racist, closeted or otherwise. When you implied that Geraldine Ferraro was racist for saying that you are "lucky" to be where you are in this election, that you wouldn't be where you were if you weren't African-American, she was indignant. It is a good bet that many whites (and maybe some blacks) agreed with her. Whites resent being accused of racism for remarks they regard as innocent or innocuous. It's hard to think of what would turn off whites quicker than playing the thin-skinned victim. One of the strengths of your campaign has been to get past the old-style politics practiced by the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and other "race men" who use skin color as a political tool.
You will never get the real racists to come around. But you have to convince some of your doubters that, whatever your skin color or background, you will be on their side. Most important, you have to convince them that they will be better off during an Obama presidency than a McCain presidency. So far, you have spoken of your hopes and dreams for America in soaring, but somewhat general, or vague, terms. Your message of hope and change has moved many voters. But to win the support of the skeptics, you are going to need to offer more substance—to show how you will make them safer and better off than John McCain will.
You are asking the wary to trust you, so your promises, and policy, must ring true. Your opponents will make gaffes, and you'll be able to capitalize on them. Last week Clinton referred to Robert F. Kennedy's June 1968 assassination in defending her decision to keep her campaign going. (She later said she regretted if her comments were "in any way offensive.") But it's a tricky business. You can't seem petty or muddle your message of running a different kind of campaign. You wisely resisted the temptation to pander on gas prices, to scorn McCain and Clinton for offering a gas-tax "holiday" this summer that would probably not do much to lower gas prices—but could put more greenhouse emissions in the air and loot into the bank accounts of the petro-dictators. But you have much to offer lower-income voters. It is a fact that more poor and uninsured people will get better health care under your plan than McCain's. (McCain has called your plan too expensive and said it would saddle the government with an "entitlement program … that Washington will let get out of control.") The Republican candidate's answer to the vanishing of jobs offshore is to tell voters that, in the long run, free trade is good for them. You can promise to bring those jobs home with tougher trade policies. McCain wants to continue the Bush tax cuts; you will raise taxes on the rich to pay for benefits that will primarily help the middle and lower class.
You need an issue that plays against prejudice or typecasting. Affirmative action is deeply unpopular with white, working-class voters who see African-Americans bestowed with privileges long denied poor whites. You've suggested—obliquely, but nonetheless provocatively—that you might prefer seeing affirmative action for disadvantaged whites rather than black elites, noting that you wouldn't expect your private-school-educated daughters to need an admissions break at college. Taking a stand for affirmative action based on socioeconomic class rather than race would send a powerful signal.
These are not messages that can just be handed down from on high, from network studios or mass urban rallies. Lyndon Johnson went to Appalachia before launching the War on Poverty; Robert Kennedy went into the hollows of mining towns in his crusade against child hunger. You need to go there, too. You can sound a little haughty at times, and it is crucial that you do not condescend to voters who are proud and self-reliant but have not had your breaks in life.
Sen. Jim Webb, the ex-Marine elected from Virginia, noted recently on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" that his people, the Scots-Irish who so heavily populate the hills of Appalachia, are like "tortured siblings of black Americans. They both have a long history and they both missed the boat when it came to larger benefits that a lot of people were able to receive." If poor rural whites and African-Americans could sit down together, they would find that they have much in common. When you visit West Virginia and Kentucky, you could begin that conversation with some town meetings. Webb has also observed that the Scots-Irish hill folk are by nature scrappers and fighters. That's one reason they admired Hillary and voted for her. You need to show them you are a fighter, too—and that you will fight for them.