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POLITICS-US: Six Points of Separation?

Bankole Thompson

DETROIT, Michigan, Sep 30 2008 (IPS) - If the presidential election is close enough on Nov. 4, racism could hand the Republican nominee Sen. John McCain a victory, according to recent polls showing that Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama is having a hard time winning over older white Democrats because of his race.

In key states like Michigan and Ohio – often referred to as "old states" because of the high concentration of retirees there – Obama may have to bank on younger whites who are mostly excited about his campaign to come out in droves on Election Day, or face the grim possibility of losing thanks to a Democratic voting bloc of white senior citizens who may defect to McCain.

An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll last week found that one-third of whites, both Democrat and Republican, have negative views about African Americans, describing them as "lazy" and "violent" and responsible for their own predicaments. The national poll found that Obama could lose six percentage points in the general elections simply because of his race.

"Racism is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about in this election. There are whites who are not comfortable voting for an African American as president of this country," said Steve Mitchell, a 50-year veteran pollster of Mitchell Research and Communications Inc.

Mitchell said during the Democratic presidential primary race every exit poll conducted overstated white support for Obama and understated Hillary Clinton's white backing.

"Some voters were not honest about their true choices in the presidential race," Mitchell said. "My son is 26. He finds Obama exciting. But older whites don't. To say these things can happen in 2008 is true. This is America."

Mitchell said most of those older white voters resettled in battleground states of Ohio and Michigan after migrating from the South during Jim Crow in the 1960s. As they migrated to the Midwest, they brought with them strong racial sentiments resulting from tensions between whites and blacks over issues of equality and justice.

"These older voters grew up in a different society in the South. It's hard to undo those racial feelings they brought to these states [Michigan and Ohio]," Mitchell said. "They'd prefer to vote for McCain than an African American candidate for president. Some of them vote Republican anyway."

Political analyst DeAmo Murphy who worked as a consultant for the Democratic National Committee in Iowa during Sen. John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid, said it will be a grave mistake for Democrats to vote against Obama because of his race.

"The true reaction to watch, however, is not that of the black voters (franchised or not). It will be those who share the pain and disillusionment of the last eight years in common with blacks, yet on Election Day, may find themselves voting for the white candidate even if it is in direct conflict with their own self-interest," Murphy said.

"On Election Day, black voters will celebrate or decry, however, there may be more white undecided voters who will enter the polling booth as progressives but leave as incidental racists," he said.

Obama and McCain have probably visited Michigan more frequently in the last month than any other state in the union.

Obama and his running mate Sen. Joe Biden, with their spouses Michelle Obama, and Jill Biden, held a rally of 35,000 people Sep. 28 in Detroit, Michigan's largest city and the nation's biggest African American metropolis, where former vice president Al Gore endorsed Obama.

A populous city of 850,000, Detroit is known as the state's Democratic stronghold with 600,000 registered voters. Local analysts predict if Obama's campaign with Detroit's new Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. can get more people out on Election Day, Obama will win Michigan.

But that will depend on the charisma of Mayor Cockrel to woo voters.

Cockrel is a far cry from his predecessor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who was an energising political presence. Often dubbed "America's hip hop mayor", he could connect with the average Detroiter, as he did for Michigan's Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm during her tough 2006 re-election against right-wing Republican candidate Dick DeVos, the brother-in-law of Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater U.S.A.

"I'm going to do whatever I can to get the vote out for Obama," Cockrel told IPS at the rally on Sunday.

After the rally, Obama's campaign announced that he will be back in Michigan Thursday for a rally in Grand Rapids, a liberal town of old blue-collar whites with a mix of young progressive whites as well as conservatives. John Edwards, the now tainted former Democratic presidential candidate, made his highly sought-after endorsement of Obama for president in Grand Rapids.

Despite the most recent Detroit Free Press/WDIV poll showing Obama has doubled his lead with Michigan voters by 15 points against McCain (51 to 38 percent), the Democrats are not taking anything for granted in the Wolverine state that lost 600,000 jobs in January this year.

"We strongly believe the economy will decide this election. We are working very hard and I'm confident in the end that Democrats would vote for Obama because of the terrible economy," said Mark Brewer, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Brewer said the economic meltdown manifesting itself in the array of giant financial institutions falling apart on Wall Street reinforces Obama's message that change is needed in Washington. He added that McCain, who has supported deregulation of Wall Street which led to the financial mess the nation is in, will offer more of the same Republican policies.

Will Democrats vote against their own economic interest because of Obama's colour in an election where the economy is gradually defining campaign messages, as the candidates make the final stretch to Nov. 4?

Brewer is optimistic that will not be the case. "In the end, the economy will trump every other issue. That's why it is important for us to get out and talk about it," he said.

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