If it is not already, this will be the consuming question for both parties over the next ninety-eight days. Depending on your point of view the recent polls either show the race in a dead heat (if you are independent), Mitt Romney beginning to gain momentum (if you are republican) or President Obama beginning to pull ahead (if you are a democrat). The main question is how accurate are the polls? Here many pundits, again depending on their political persuasion have numerous cogent arguments as to why one view or the other is correct based on the sampling, the questions asked and of course the arguable bias of the pollsters trying to lead the trend–not measure it.
There is potentially a huge problem with the polls. They could be not just off by a few percent, they could be off by miles as a result of the key demographics who may decide this race. About two years ago I was having a conversation with a good friend, we can call him Mr. Blue. Mr. Blue is an African-American. He is now in his mid-seventies, he has been very successful, is highly intelligent and worldly and I have a tremendous respect for him and his opinions. We were having a discussion about our youth and the impact of race on our lives and perspectives.
During our conversation, he made what I thought was a very interesting and insightful statement. I do not recall well enough to quote verbatim, but in essence he asked me a question. “Do you know what one of the main differences between blacks and whites is?” After I responded with what I am sure was a very witty comment, I said no probably not. He said, if you as a white man (non-minority) go to a new city and want to find out where to go and what to do, in other words where the action is, it is often not easy to find out because the people you would likely ask relate to only know a small part of what is happening in their respective subgroups and more often than not, if they do know, they are reluctant to tell you, “a stranger”, or you may be reluctant, due to a lack of trust, to take their advice. But a black man can ask any black man and he will rapidly find out what the 411 is: where to go, what to do, in other words what’s happening. And for the most part that minority man can trust and count on the advice because he knows they have each other’s back…
He then made the point, that blacks, and by extension all oppressed minorities, have developed a brotherhood, an innate sense of community, both as a form of protection from oppression and as a comforting blanket in which to find security in an insecure and potentially dangerous world. He went on to say the reason that blacks call each other brother, or in the vernacular the “n” word with affection, is that they, by necessity, look out for each other and this preserves a strong sense of solidarity and community. He also made the point that blacks, mostly will not violate the integrity of the brotherhood, by extension the community. Perhaps, like they say about Vegas, what happens in the community stays in the community. People in these groups/communities never talk out of school.
I have thought about this discussion often in the past few months as I listen to the election poll data. It has come back to mind again and again as a single thought that I took away from the discussion. If Mr. Blue and I were in New York staying downtown at a hotel, and while walking out the door to catch a cab asked the doorman the same question we would likely get very different answers. Not simply because of race. Race may be a component of the selection of the response but it less simply race driven than group driven. We would get different answers because one of us is “in” the same group and the other one of us is “out” out of the group. The answer would differ in completeness, depth, and potentially honesty depending on the group of the doorman compared to our own.
If it is true, that minorities are much less likely to speak outside their group, then this could explain the disconnect many are seeing between the current poling data and the empirical evidence we are collecting from friends and family. The current demographic polling data is not in sync with what many are hearing, one on one, in communities and workplaces.
In the last election, Mr. Obama’s margin of victory in the popular vote was 7.26%. A commanding lead over John McCain. A number of things potentially contributed to this victory. There was a significantly large turnout aver 63% of eligible voters, one of the highest since 1960. The President received 95% of the Black votes, 66% of Hispanic votes and 70% of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transsexual (LGBT) votes*. But it does not appear that this will be the case this time. The current polling data shows 88% of Blacks, 60% of Hispanics, and estimates of 60% from LGBT still support Obama. While this is a key and significant reduction in what was a very active voting demographic, the looming problem may be that the empirical data derived from discussion with individuals within these groups shows potentially a significantly larger reduction in support than the polling data suggests.
A significant portion of Blacks, Hispanics and LGBT last time initially better identified with, and supported, Hillary Clinton, and in the end shifted to Barak Obama in the closing days of the primary. A good portion may have shifted due to the milestone factor–supporting the concept of the first African-American president. A number of voters, in these demographics, today privately profess to regretting their shift and a good number have been outspoken in their respective communities about the lack of fulfillment of their shifted vote.
The recent public statements by members of the association of black churches is startling both in the plainness of their dissatisfaction with the president on the subject of gay marriage and the fact that they have actually made their statements in the main stream and no longer inside the communities and in private. Just two years ago Michael Weinstein, President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles, one of the major leading HIV/AIDS organizations in the U.S. ran a series of articles and a national campaign focused on the question, “Who was better for HIV/AIDS: George Bush of Barak Obama.” Not surprising to many in the LGBT community, but very surprising to those outside the community, George Bush won the day.
Is it possible that the minority, or brotherhood, effect that Mr. Blue spoke so clearly to me about a few years ago could be obscuring the real voting intentions of these cohorts behind a wall of silence driven by this brotherhood effect? Is it possible that publically, and in polling calls, these disaffected constituents hold to the community or group line and in reality will either not vote at all, or will vote AOTO? (Anyone Other Than Obama).
Some say that these groups will still vote as they did the last time because they can not bring themselves to vote for a republican in general, or Mitt Romney in particular. But is this really true? People that feel their trust is betrayed, as some in these constituencies clearly do, likely will not be so dispassionate. Likely, either they will not vote, or they will vote in order to make a statement.
In the end, the discussion with Mr. Blue is a telling one and something we should all think about in the next ninety-eight days as the rhetoric heats up and the lunacy grows. Like everything else in our hyper-partisan self-focused world, one side will hope the brotherhood effect holds true and the other will hope it is false. We will know the answer shortly.
* Data from the Roper Center Demographic Report 2008