Polls Yield Tricky Answers on Race

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Question: In deciding your vote for president today, was the race of the candidate the single most important factor, one of several important factors, or not an important factor?

This is the first presidential campaign in which exit pollsters for Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International have posed such a question. The reason is quite obvious: A black man, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), is on the Democratic primary ballot.

But what are we to learn from the answers?

"Obviously, this is a historic campaign," said Mike Mokrzycki, director of polling for Associated Press and a member of the National Election Pool, a media consortium that drew up questions for the exit polls. "And, speaking for myself and not for the whole committee that drafts these things, I'm certainly interested in being able to gauge to what extent race was a factor in how people vote in Democratic primaries."

As of Monday, about 34,000 voters in 27 Democratic primaries had responded to the question. (Voters in Maryland and Virginia were asked a different question during the Potomac Primary: Is the country ready to elect a black president? Most blacks and whites responded definitely or probably. District voters were not polled.)

The results of the race factor question so far: 6 percent of respondents said race was the most important factor; 13 percent said race was one of several important factors; and everyone else said it was not important at all.

This make sense, because the electorate sees itself as increasingly colorblind.

But how do you interpret the answers?

Of the approximately 23,000 whites polled, 4 percent said race was the most important factor, and 10 percent said it was one of several important factors in determining how they voted. Are the people who say race is a factor more racist than everyone else, or just more honest? Or are they just thrilled at the possibility of the first black president of the United States?

Let's look at some other numbers.

Among whites who said race was an important factor, about 65 percent voted for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and 31 percent for Obama. In West Virginia, 84 percent of those whites voted for Clinton; in Mississippi, 81 percent; and in Arkansas, 80 percent.

"What I take away from that is that whites who acknowledge race as being an important factor in their vote were more inclined to vote for Clinton than Obama," Mokrzycki said. "You can read into that what you will."

Before passing judgment, consider this: Among the whites in Vermont who said race was important, 61 percent voted for Obama. Does that make Vermont less racist?

"I would hesitate to draw too broad a conclusion from the Democratic electorate," Mokrzycki said, "but it does seem that Democratic voters in Vermont who told us that race was an important factor were much more likely than their counterparts in other states to vote for Obama."

Some news analyses about the poll have concluded that if you are a white male, didn't attend college and don't earn more than $50,000 a year and if race was an important factor in your vote and you didn't vote for Obama, you are under a cloud of racial suspicion.

I'd like to hear from someone in that group to help me clear the air. Could it be that those voters simply preferred Clinton's position on the issues?

As for black voters, 29 percent of the 6,700 polled said the race of the candidate was the most important or one of several important factors in determining who got their vote. Although that is twice the percentage of white race-conscious voters, the number still strikes me as low. Obama routinely pulls 90 to 99 percent of the black vote.

Would that make them racist? Or could it just be that black voters are saying that having a black president would mean a lot to them?

And what would be wrong with that?


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