Polling must improve to gauge influence of race on voters’ decisions

Public polls — Gallup, Pew, The New York Times and so forth — are letting us down when it comes to documenting the role that Obama’s race plays in this election. It is as if a once-in-a-lifetime asteroid were hurtling toward Earth and NASA went out to Target and bought a cheap student telescope to observe the event. The public polls can and should do more.

A CBS poll, conducted last July, is the most admirable and straightforward effort I have seen. It approached the issue of voting for a black presidential candidate both obliquely and directly. In response to a direct question, 6 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a presidential candidate who is black. An ironic racial cross-tab revealed that more blacks than whites expressed this prejudice. Six percent of blacks versus just 5 percent of whites said they can’t vote for a black candidate.

Obliquely, the CBS pollsters probed about prejudices of “most people you know” and whether “America is ready to elect a black president.” These questions were well-done, showing the potential for prejudice beyond directly reported bias. The poll also explored the topic through projection of the anticipated biases of a black president. Thirteen percent of whites said that a President Obama administration is likely to favor blacks over whites in policymaking.

An Associated Press survey went about the task in an indirect or inferential manner. It asked, for example, “How much do you like or dislike each of the following [racial] groups?” Presumably, the 8 percent that said they dislike blacks are unlikely to vote for Obama. In a similar vein, questions were asked about sympathy for blacks, perceived political influence of blacks, and adjectives that might or might not describe blacks. Getting closer to something useful, the AP poll asked whether the fact that Barack Obama would be the first black president affects their voting decision. Overall, one is left with the discomforting feeling that this poll was designed with the intent of maximizing the sense that whites are prejudiced, creating a handicap for the Obama campaign to overcome. The fact that AP’s results disclose white responses to questions about prejudice while not showing blacks’ responses — something that CBS did — is disquieting.

Neither of these polls gets into topics that real voters are discussing. For example, no one is asking about Obama’s perceived race. Is he simply “black,” or is he multiracial? During the primaries, when some blacks clung to Hillary Clinton, blacks themselves discussed whether Obama was genuinely black. The white-mother issue seemed a handicap. Presumably, the Obama campaign thinks that having a white mother might open up some whites to voting for him. In an Obama “paid advertisement” video that runs continuously on the Dish Network, the white mother and grandfather are heavily emphasized.

There is another element of race that also deserves exploration if we really want to understand how all this works. Through the decades, I have often heard that whites are attracted to “good blacks” who seem to share some “white values” and will be effective in handling “the element” in a manner that a white leader never could. This was one explanation for the rise of early black political figures like former cop Tom Bradley, who became mayor of Los Angeles and a Democrat nominee for governor. Is this phenomenon in play as it relates to Obama? Is he a “safe black” because he seems so passive and pleasant and has a white mother?

Admittedly, there are potentially unpleasant issues here, as in the study of eugenics or why blacks might be better suited to some athletic pursuits than whites. But for the sake of social science and history, let’s get busy and understand what is going through the minds of American voters at this important moment.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.