Adam Ash

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Are we ready for a black president? We've been ready for years

Ready for Obama Already – by MARTIN PLISSNER/NY Times

WITH Barack Obama expected to announce on Saturday that he’s running for president, if you enter “America,” “ready” and “black president” in a Google search, you’ll get around 125,000 hits. When pollsters bring up those words with random samples of voters — and they’ve done it a lot recently — they get “yes” answers from 62 percent (CNN), 56 percent (Newsweek), 58 percent (Gallup) and 55 percent (CBS).

Most of these surveys, however, ask people only if the rest of America is ready for it to happen, not about being ready themselves to make it happen. When one poll asked Republicans and Democrats if they would vote for a “qualified” black of their own party, barely 5 percent said no — hardly surprising, as doing so would be a frank acknowledgment of prejudice.

A much better poll would consist of giving an actual set of candidates’ names at the end of a real campaign. Fortunately, 10 years ago such a test was actually done.

On Nov. 5, 1996, Voter News Service — the organization hired by the TV networks to do exit polling — asked people at the polls, who had just given Bill Clinton 49 percent of the vote, Bob Dole 41 percent and Ross Perot 8 percent, how they would have voted if the Republican candidate had been Gen. Colin L. Powell. In an exit poll sample of 3,697 (three times the size of a standard high-grade public opinion survey), the result was this:

Powell: 50 percent.

Clinton: 38 percent.

Perot: 9 percent.

This finding, however, was not part of the pooled report shared by all the networks; it was commissioned by CBS News, of which I was then political director. As often happens, however, when there’s a lot of big news, this bit of data got buried in an end-of-night roundup and was quickly forgotten. But it does suggest there was a day when Americans, had they been given a choice of major party candidates, one of whom was black, would very likely have chosen the black one.

Most significantly, General Powell would have won the race because of the support of white voters — Bill Clinton outpolled him 2 to 1 among the blacks surveyed. Among white voters, whom Senator Dole had carried very narrowly (too narrowly for him to win), General Powell clobbered the incumbent, 53 percent to 33 percent.

Any poll analysis has to be hedged with qualifications, and this one more than most. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole had just been through bruising year-long campaigns and exposed to more than $100 million of take-no-prisoners advertising. Colin Powell had not. He was still being acclaimed for his role as the country’s top soldier in its only clear victory since World War II.

Still, even with these qualifiers, there is a pretty good, if not quite conclusive, case that America has for some time been ready to elect a black president. The question for Barack Obama is whether this time around it will be ready for this one.

(Martin Plissner is the author of “The Control Room: How Television Calls the Shots in Presidential Elections.”)


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