Editorial: A ‘background’ gap

Posted July 29, 2008, at 12 a.m.

A recent political survey has disclosed a significant and possibly disturbing gap in public attitudes toward the “values and backgrounds” of the two presumed presidential candidates.

According to the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, Barack Obama held a relatively steady lead over John McCain. But Republican Sen. McCain led Democratic Sen. Obama by a greater margin when the survey asked voters whether they were comfortable with the background and values of the two candidates.

Another portentous survey question, the Journal reported, showed that “fully half of all voters say they are focused on their feelings and attitudes toward Sen. Obama as they decide how they will vote, while only a quarter say they will base their choice on their feelings about Sen. McCain.”

Thus, the present focus of the campaign is not on any particular issue but on the Democratic candidate himself. The Journal quoted Peter Hart, a Democrat who conducts the poll along with Republican Neil Newhouse, as saying, “Obama is going to be the point person in this election. Voters want to answer a simple question: Is Barack Obama safe?” Mr. Newhouse said, “Voters have a sense they know what they’ re going to get if they elect John McCain, but an uncertainty about Barack Obama that they are trying to sort through.”

The figures, from the survey taken July 18 through 21: 47 percent said they preferred Sen. Obama to win, while 41 percent said Sen. McCain, with an error margin of 3.1 percentage points. On background and values, 58 percent said they were comfortable with Sen. McCain, while only 47 percent said the same of Sen. Obama. The Journal added that “more than four in 10 said the Democratic contender doesn’ t have values and a background they can identify with.”

Other poll results were strongly in Sen. Obama’ s favor: 74 percent said the country is on the wrong track, reflecting “economic jitters,” the Journal said. It added that “the voters also said, by substantial margins, that Democrats would do a better job both handling the economy overall and energy in particular.”

Still, the survey shows that Sen. Obama has some distance to go in telling the voters who he is and what he stands for and persuading them that he is fit to lead the country.

Although race was not mentioned in the survey questions, it seems obvious that, to many voters, “background and values” is code language for the fact that Sen. Obama would be the first U.S. black president.

With two glass ceilings involved in the 2008 presidential contest, either Sen. Obama or his rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would have faced some degree of prejudice. But expressing anti-black sentiment has become politically incorrect, even among the raucous blogs and talk-show hosts. In contrast, the same loud talkers can get away with derogatory remarks about women.

An unanswered question remains how the voters will act in the privacy of the voting booth.

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