July 16, 2008
Poll Finds Obama’s Run Isn’t Closing Divide on Race
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and MEGAN THEE
Americans are sharply divided by race heading into the first election in which an African-American will be a major-party presidential nominee, with blacks and whites holding vastly different views of Senator Barack Obama, the state of race relations and how black Americans are treated by society, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
The results of the poll, conducted against the backdrop of a campaign in which race has been a constant if not always overt issue, suggested that Mr. Obama’s candidacy, while generating high levels of enthusiasm among black voters, is not seen by them as evidence of significant improvement in race relations.
After years of growing political polarization, much of the divide in American politics is partisan. But Americans’ perceptions of the fall presidential election between Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, also underlined the racial discord that the poll found. More than 80 percent of black voters said they had a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama; about 30 percent of white voters said they had a favorable opinion of him.
Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said race relations were generally bad, compared with 34 percent of whites. Four in 10 blacks say that there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination; fewer than 2 in 10 whites say the same thing. And about one-quarter of white respondents said they thought that too much had been made of racial barriers facing black people, while one-half of black respondents said not enough had been made of racial impediments faced by blacks.
The survey suggests that even as the nation crosses a racial threshold when it comes to politics — Mr. Obama, a Democrat, is the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas — many of the racial patterns in society remain unchanged in recent years.
Indeed, the poll showed markedly little change in the racial components of people’s daily lives since 2000, when The Times examined race relations in an extensive series of articles called “How Race Is Lived in America.”
As it was eight years ago, few Americans have regular contact with people of other races, and few say their own workplaces or their own neighborhoods are integrated. In this latest poll, over 40 percent of blacks said they believed they had been stopped by the police because of their race, the same figure as eight years ago; 7 percent of whites said the same thing.
Nearly 70 percent of blacks said they had encountered a specific instance of discrimination based on their race, compared with 62 percent in 2000; 26 percent of whites said they had been the victim of racial discrimination. (Over 50 percent of Hispanics said they had been the victim of racial discrimination.)
And when asked whether blacks or whites had a better chance of getting ahead in today’s society, 64 percent of black respondents said that whites did. That figure was slightly higher even than the 57 percent of blacks who said so in a 2000 poll by The Times. And the number of blacks who described racial conditions as generally bad in this survey was almost identical to poll responses in 2000 and 1990.
“Basically it’s the same old problem, the desire for power,” Macie Mitchell, a Pennsylvania Democrat from Erie County, who is black, said in a follow-up interview after participating in the poll. “People get so obsessed with power and don’t want to share it. There are people who are not used to blacks being on top.”
White perceptions, by contrast, improved markedly from 1990 to 2000, but have remained steady since. This month’s poll found that 55 percent of whites said race relations were good, almost double the figure for blacks.
The nationwide telephone poll was conducted July 7-14 with 1,796 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. In an effort to measure views of different races, the survey included larger-than-usual minority samples — 297 blacks and 246 Hispanics — with a margin of sampling error of six percentage points for each subgroup.
Black and white Americans agree that America is ready to elect a black president, but disagree on almost every other question about race in the poll.
Black voters were far more likely than whites to say that Mr. Obama cares about the needs and problems of people like them, and more likely to describe him as patriotic. Whites were more likely than blacks to say that Mr. Obama says what he thinks people want to hear, rather than what he truly believes. And about half of black voters said race relations would improve in an Obama administration, compared with 29 percent of whites.
About 40 percent of blacks said that Mr. McCain, if elected president, would favor whites over blacks should he win the election.
There was even racial dissension over Mr. Obama’s wife, Michelle: She was viewed favorably by 58 percent of black voters, compared with 24 percent of white voters.
Among black voters, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, Mr. Obama draws support from 89 percent, compared with 2 percent for Mr. McCain. Among whites, Mr. Obama has 37 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Mr. McCain.
After a Democratic primary season in which Mr. Obama had difficulty competing for Hispanic votes against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama leads Mr. McCain among Hispanic voters in the likely general election matchup by 62 to 23 percent. Mr. Obama is viewed favorably by more than half of Hispanic Americans, compared with Mr. McCain, whose favorability rating is just under one-quarter. By significant margins, these voters believe that Mr. Obama will do a better job of dealing with immigration; Mr. McCain has been trying to distance himself from Republicans who have advocated a tough policy on permitting illegal immigrants to stay in the country.
Over all, Mr. Obama leads Mr. McCain among all registered voters by 45 percent to 39 percent.
White voters, much more so than black voters, are divided in their political loyalties. Mr. Obama draws significant support among white Democrats. Yet still, among just Democrats, blacks were more apt than whites in the poll to express positive views of Mr. Obama across a range of questions. For example, black Democrats were 24 points more likely than white Democrats to have a favorable opinion of Mr. Obama.
“I don’t like some of his policies, like on energy,” said Bob Beidelman, 69, a white Democrat from York, Pa., about Mr. Obama. “Also I don’t like statements his wife made. She seems like a spoiled brat to me.”
He added: “I’m one of those white people who clings to guns and the Bible, and those things that Barack said kind of turned me off,” he said. “This isn’t a black and white thing. If a conservative African-American like former Congressman J. C. Watts was running, I’d have bumper stickers plastered all over my car supporting him.”
The survey found extensive excitement among African-Americans about the prospect of Mr. Obama’s candidacy, a factor that could prove important in pushing voter turnout. The poll found that 72 percent of black voters said they expected Mr. Obama to win.
The high levels of enthusiasm for Mr. Obama among black Americans suggested that there was less of a divide among them about his candidacy than suggested by occasional tension among black leaders. Last week, Mr. Obama was criticized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson as “talking down to black people” by going before black audiences and urging parents to take more responsibility for their children.
“He’s got all these enthusiastic young people working for him,” said James Wilson, 75, a property manager from Philadelphia who is black. “I’m a person who would never give money and they called on the phone and got me to give.”
The poll found that Mr. McCain is yoked to the legacy of President Bush — majorities believe that Mr. McCain, as president, would continue Mr. Bush’s policies in Iraq and on the economy. Mr. Bush’s approval rating on the economy is as low as it has been in his presidency, 20 percent; and even while there has been an increase in the number of Americans who think the war is going well, there has been no change in the significantly large number of people who think it was a mistake to have invaded.
Kevin Sack, Dalia Sussman and Marina Stefan contributed reporting.