today in black history

November 30, 2022

Shirley Anita St. Hill (later Chisholm) is born in Brooklyn, New York on this day in 1924, and would later win election to Congress.

Dirt to fly in race for the White House

POSTED: October 06, 2008, 12:00 pm

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With weeks to go there is new evidence that the race to the White House is about to take a nasty turn. As polls indicate Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain losing ground to his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, it looks like McCain is prepared to go negative in the final weeks of the campaign.

The first volley was launched by McCain’s running mate Governor Sarah Palin. The Alaskan, who was once again mocked in a Saturday Night Live sketch over the weekend, charged that Senator Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” in reference to his acquaintance with William Ayers, a former member of the 1960’s Weather Underground. It has been well established that there has been little communication between the two men in years though they once served together on the board of a Chicago not-for-profit, and Ayers hosted a fundraiser for Obama ten years ago when he was running for state Senate in Illinois. The fact that Palin leveled the charge is all the more interesting given the fact that the governor is the subject of an active investigation in which her aides have refused to cooperate in her home state.

While a more confrontational approach was expected by both camps as Election Day quickly approaches, the decision by the McCain campaign to go negative this early suggests that their internal polling may be suggesting difficulties currently not realized by the media. Already the campaign has retreated from an earlier goal of running competitively in Michigan, a key battleground state that is symbolic of working class Americans caught in the current economic turndown. The Obama campaign’s decision to run a 50 state strategy, committed to competing in so-called “red states,” has forced the McCain campaign to expend dollars it does not have. As a result, as the economic crisis unfolds, McCain finds himself losing ground in some states that were once considered in play and having to compete in states the Republican Party had felt were pretty secure.

What may also be driving this relatively early tilt toward negative campaigning is the congressional map. With President Bush’s numbers nearing rock bottom, and the economic crisis souring the electorate’s opinion of the GOP, the November 4 election could be one of total regime change with Democrats securing veto proof majorities in both houses of Congress along with capturing the White House. One of the concerns of House Republicans last week was how the mortgage bailout plan was playing out among their constituents and it was clear voters were angry over the turn of events and venting their concerns to their member of Congress. With congressional seats now at stake, the McCain campaign’s best hope at stopping the slide in the polls is to cast doubt and raise suspicions about Senator Obama.

Though negative campaigning is not new, and there is mixed evidence of its effectiveness, it may be particularly lethal this year due to the undeniable role that race is playing in voters’ determination of their preference for President. Despite well over a year’s worth of rebuttals to racially charged accusations that he is Muslim and foreign born, Senator Obama still faces suspicions among many whites who are falling prey to biased messaging from the Republican camp. Numerous polls have indicated that many whites are still suspect of Senator Obama and believe the lies and innuendos that have been circulated regarding him.

Playing to the racial fears of white voters is not new and has worked in the past. One of the most significant episodes was the subtle message the campaign of then North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms sent to white voters during his 1990 re-election run against then Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt. Helms’ team exploited racial tensions by running a television commercial showing a pair of white hands crumpling an employment rejection letter with the voice over stating, “You needed that job, and you were the best-qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? Harvey Gantt says it is.” Two years earlier GOP strategist the late Lee Atwater orchestrated an “independent” ad focused on the furlough of a convicted murderer in Massachusetts, Willie Horton, who committed rape after his release during the tenure of Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee that year against President George H. Bush.

In the backdrop of the campaign for some time has been talk that a “Bradley effect” could occur, referring to white voters publicly expressing support for Senator Obama but then voting for Senator McCain. This behavior takes its name from the gubernatorial campaign of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, the first Black mayor of that city who lost his bid for governor in 1982 by a razor thin margin to George Deukmejian after leading in most polls. The conventional wisdom has been that a subtle appeal to white voters by McCain using racially coded messages – Muslim, foreign – could be enough to tip the scales in a close election.

What remains to be seen is how the Obama campaign will respond to such attacks. Throughout the campaign, in the primary run and the general election run up, Obama’s handlers have been careful to have him directly confront issues of race; the exception being his televised speech in Philadelphia. There are signs, however, that the Democrat is prepared to confront the McCain campaign head-on and make their tactics a campaign issue. With the next scheduled debate between the two candidates set for Tuesday there will be a decidedly different atmosphere on the stage when the two men meet.

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