The Epochal 2008 Contest
The 2008 presidential election was epochal because it was the first time a black person was the candidate of one of the two major political parties. Barack Obama, junior senator of Illinois, in the second year of his first term, became the Democratic candidate after a bruising party primary. His opponent was long-time Arizona senator John McCain, a veteran of the Vietnam War. Conditions favored Obama. On the domestic front, the majority of Americans as reflected in public opinion polls were disgusted at the economic malaise and associated loss of jobs, housing crisis, and overall deteriorating standard of living. Also, there was mass discontent with the Bush administration’s assault on civil liberties, as evidenced by the numerous violations committed under the government’s surveillance program, a major pillar of the United States’ “counter-terrorism strategy.”
The Bush administration was also unpopular at home for the Iraq war, especially because of the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and the injury of thousands of others. Americans were weary of the Bush era, particularly the adverse consequences of its domestic economic policies and its war in Iraq. Ac?cordingly, the desire for change became widespread among Americans across the racial and ideological divide.
Despite the domestic economic crisis and foreign policy misadventures, race was a central issue. Clearly, this was due to the fact that one of the two major candidates was black, a first in American presidential elections. Thus, both the McCain campaign and sundry right-wing groups could use Obama directly to frame racialized political ads. For his part, Obama, out of mind-boggling idealism or “political speak,” made every effort to de-stress the centrality of race. This orientation reflect the position he articulated in his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention: “There’s not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there is the United States of America” (Obama 2004: 2).
The ads from the McCain camp and various conservative groups demonstrated that Obama’s portrayal of a post-racial America was still a “dream.” As Gasper (2008: 16) notes, “But whether Obama believed his own rhetoric, the realities of the presidential election refuted Obama’s rosy picture of the state of race in the United States. ”McCain ads were aired with the goal of subtly appealing to white voters. Several ads characterized Obama as “out of touch with mainstream America,” a reference to the notion that whites represent the “mainstream” and blacks are the “others” at the periphery. An ad accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” to accentuate the stereotypical view of blacks as violent and unpatriotic. Similarly, the ad about Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s criticisms of U.S. imperial foreign policy was subtly racialized to portray Obama as an associate of an “angry and radical black man” who “hates the United States.” An ad comparing Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton suggested to white voters that he was nothing more than a bubble-headed, publicity-seeking celebrity (New York Times 2008: 1). There were two major racial cues from this ad. First, Obama “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on these dollar bills.” Second, despite the two white female entertainers, the racially coded message was that Obama is akin to black entertainers who lack the intellect and critical skills required for leadership positions; hence, he is not qualified for the serious position of the President of the United States.
Not to be outdone, various right-wing groups joined the “game and played the race card.” The New Yorker illustrated caricature of Obama dressed in Islamic garb giving a fist bump to his afro-sporting, rifle-toting wife Michelle (New Yorker, 2008J. This New Yorker was certainly not right wing, although it was criticized for the appearance of the image.
In an ad designed by Diane Fedele, president of a Californian conservative Republican women’s group, Obama’s face was put on a fake $10 food stamp surrounded by a slice of watermelon, a bucket of fried chicken, a rack of barbequed ribs, and a picture of Kool-Aid (Wickham 2008: 1). The racial message was that an Obama presidency would “waste” (white) taxpayers’ money on the expansion of the welfare system for blacks. Interestingly, the outcome showed that Obama won 43 percent of the white vote. This meant that the other 57 percent voted for McCain and minor party candidates. Were the majority of white voters who did not support Obama influenced by race, especially the ads from the McCain campaign and conservative groups? This is difficult to determine. Overall, Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes, versus 46 percent and 173 for McCain.