Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of White Democrats harbor negative views toward Blacks–many calling them "lazy," "violent" or responsible for their own troubles.
The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004–about 2.5 percentage points.
Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He's an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation's oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all White Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward Blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.
More than a third of all White Democrats and independents–voters Obama can't win the White House without–agreed with at least one negative adjective about Blacks, according to the survey, and they are significantly less likely to vote for Obama than those who don't have such views.
Why is it close?
The pollsters set out to determine why Obama is locked in a close race with McCain even as the political landscape seems to favor Democrats. The findings suggest Obama's challenge lies among fellow Democrats, particularly non-Hispanic White voters. Just seven in 10 people who call themselves Democrats support Obama, compared to the 85 percent of self-identified Republicans who back McCain.
The survey also focused on the racial attitudes of independent voters because they are likely to decide the election.
More Whites say good things about Blacks than say bad things, the poll shows. And many Whites who see Blacks in a negative light are still willing or even eager to vote for Obama.
On the other side of the racial question, the Illinois Democrat is drawing almost unanimous support from Blacks, the poll shows, though that probably wouldn't be enough to counter the negative effect of some Whites' views.
Race is not the biggest factor driving Democrats and independents away from Obama. Doubts about his competency loom even larger, the poll indicates. More than a quarter of all Democrats expressed doubt Obama can bring about the change they want, and they are likely to vote against him because of that.
Three in 10 of those Democrats who don't trust Obama's change-making credentials say they plan to vote for McCain.
Still, the effects of Whites' racial views are apparent.
Statistical models derived from the poll suggest Obama's support would be as much as 6 percentage points higher if there were no White racial prejudice. But in an election without precedent, it's hard to know if such models take into account all the possible factors at play.
The poll used the methodology of Knowledge Networks, a Menlo Park, Calif., firm that interviews people online after randomly selecting and screening them over telephone. Numerous studies have shown people are more likely to report embarrassing behavior and unpopular opinions when answering questions on a computer rather than talking to a stranger.
Labels paint picture
Given a choice of several positive and negative adjectives that might describe Blacks, 20 percent of all Whites said the word "violent" strongly applied. Among other words, 22 percent agreed with "boastful," 29 percent "complaining," 13 percent "lazy" and 11 percent "irresponsible." Asked about positive adjectives, Whites were more likely to stay on the fence than give a strongly positive assessment.
Among White Democrats, one-third cited a negative adjective and, of those, 58 percent said they planned to back Obama.
The poll sought to measure latent prejudices among Whites by asking about factors contributing to the state of Black America. One finding: More than a quarter of White Democrats agree that "if Blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as Whites." Those who agreed with that statement were much less likely to back Obama than those who didn't.
Just 59 percent of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's White Democratic supporters said they wanted Obama to be president. Nearly 17 percent of Clinton's White backers plan to vote for McCain. Among White Democrats, Clinton supporters were nearly twice as likely as Obama backers to say at least one negative adjective described Blacks well, a finding suggesting many of her supporters in the primaries–particularly Whites with high school education or less–were motivated in part by racial attitudes.
The survey of 2,227 adults was conducted Aug. 27 to Sept. 5 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points.