Journalists by instinct tend to hedge their bets, so most don’t say in public what they really think. But our conversations with colleagues make clear what many think about the great race between Barack Obama and John McCain: This election is just about over, and Obama is just about to be president.
There’s a big difference, of course, between just about over and stick-a-fork-in-it over. A lot could happen, after all, in the 29 days before Nov. 4.
And that leads to something else that a lot of political reporters — and a lot of political operatives and elected officials from both major parties that we have spoken with — believe to be true but tend not to say when cameras are rolling.
By far the most likely thing that could derail Obama’s victory is a racial backlash that is not visible in today’s polls but is waiting to surge on Election Day — coaxed to the surface (to the extent coaxing is needed) with the help of coded appeals from McCain and his conservative allies.
Racial issues tend to hover in the background in much of the public analysis of the Obama-McCain horserace — often mentioned but not usually as the dominant factor. By contrast, it is increasingly the subject of obsessive interest in the nonstop, not-for-attribution conversation that takes place between reporters, political analysts and campaign sources in the heat of an election.
As a result, much of the news coverage and commentary that the media will produce over the next month will flow from the assumption that racial antagonisms are an unexploded bomb in this contest. By this logic, if Obama does not head into Nov. 4 with a lead of at least several points in the polls, there is a good chance he’ll be swamped by prejudice that will flourish in the privacy of the voting booth.
“If Obama loses a close race,” James Carville told our colleague David Paul Kuhn, “it is almost inevitable that [racism] will be a very big part of the interpretation of the race.”
On the principle that someone who had bet against the conventional wisdom at every turn in this presidential race would have made a lot of money, Politico dispatched reporters to examine survey data and talk to voters in an effort to gauge the potential of a racial surge against Obama.
This reporting did not debunk the conventional wisdom. But it did find reason for at least a measure of skepticism on a couple of fronts:
This is the phenomenon, named after former Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley, by which black candidates are thought to perform better in polls than they do on Election Day. (Bradley lost a race for governor in 1982 that polls said he was supposed to win. Similarly, Douglas Wilder barely won his race for Virginia governor in 1989, despite a big lead in polls).
Kuhn’s reporting, based on extensive conversations with several of the nation’s top pollsters and political consultants, shows a complex picture.
The pollsters say the days of voters lying in large numbers to pollsters to disguise their racial concerns are largely over. The only way the phenomenon of voters misleading pollsters will matter is if the race is very tight, they say.
“I have a concern that going into Election Day, in a dead heat, there could be some drop-off in support of Obama, of one or two points, because some voters are conflicted about race in this election,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.
Buoyed by concerns about the financial crisis, Obama is building a big lead nationally and in key states – a lead that if it holds is probably big enough to compensate for any racial backlash, the pollsters say.
As an Obama spokesman dryly told Smith, “If you didn’t notice it, then you probably weren’t the target.”