Truth-tellers, liars and equivocators

Checking Jim Moran: Was Obama's race behind Democrats’ midterm losses in 2010?

February 1, 2011 - 06:40 AM
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Since Thursday, U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) has been accused of “slandering America,” “projecting his racism on others,” and of having a “real talent for verbal mendacity.”

The outrage resulted from remarks Moran made during an interview with the U.S.-backed Arab news network Alhurra after last week's State of the Union. Here’s what he said:

[Democratic losses in the midterms] happened because of the same reason the Civil War happened in the United States. The Civil War happened because the Southern states, particularly the slaveholding states, didn't want to see a president who was opposed to slavery. In this case a lot of people in this country, I believe, don't want to be governed by an African American, particularly one who is inclusive, who is liberal, who wants to spend money on everyone and who wants to reach out to include everyone in our society.

Disregarding the comparison between a midterm election and the Civil War, we’re zeroing in on the core of Moran’s remarks: that Democrats lost dozens of seats in November because “a lot of people in this country … don't want to be governed by an African American.”

Moran is no shrinking violet, and Anne Hughes, his spokeswoman, defended his comments in a statement:

With nearly 1,000 identified hate groups in the U.S. and recent studies showing a majority of Americans believe racism is still widespread against African-Americans, it is no secret that our country has and continues to struggle with racial equality. The Congressman was expressing his frustration with this problem and the role it played in the last election. Rather than ignore this issue or pretend it isn't there, the Congressman believes we are better off discussing it in order to overcome it.

The relationship between voting behavior and race can be difficult for political scientists to measure. For one thing, people generally aren’t willing to discuss their views on race with a pollster. For another, the role of race in voting behavior is often found at the subconscious level.

In his remarks, Moran implied a direct causal relationship between Obama’s race and the Democrats’ midterm losses. Clearly, it’s not that simple.

“I think it’s irresponsible to dismiss out of hand what Moran said,” says Michael Fauntroy, a professor at George Mason University who studies race and politics. Fauntroy says a portion of the electorate -- although not a majority -- clearly wasn’t amenable to having a black man as president. “It’s more important a factor than people give it credit for.”

Fauntroy also pointed out that the history of conservative politics in the U.S. shows politicians willing to use “dog whistle” tactics to win over white voters. This ranges from Ronald Reagan’s allusion to “strapping young bucks” buying steaks using food stamps to allusions to “state’s rights” in the years after the civil rights movement.

While history is there, these effects have been muted in recent years. A CBS News poll from June 2008 -- after Obama had won the Democratic nomination -- showed that 68 percent of Americans thought the United States was ready for a black president. The same poll also showed that 22 percent of white Americans said race would play a role in their vote.

Fauntroy also noted that Obama is generally thought to be a conciliatory figure between the races, and is less "scary" than some other black politicians. Former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder had a similar effect, he said.

A clear racial divide exists nonetheless. White voters went 62 percent to 38 percent for Republicans in 2010.

In the end, is race the reason Democrats lost? While Fauntroy says race was "more important a factor than people give it credit for," he also notes that it "is not something that's quantifiable."

And there were other significant factors in the Democrats' midterm losses: The president's party typically loses seats in midterms; the national unemployment rate was stuck at 9.8 percent, leading many voters to believe that Democrats had failed to deliver on the issue voters said was the most important -- getting Americans back to work; and there was still significant opposition to Obama's 2010 health care law.

Two recent presidents who came into midterms with sputtering economies also saw their parties lose big time. Reagan's Republicans lost 26 of their 192 House seats in 1982. In 1994, the Democrats lost 54 seats out of 258 under Bill Clinton. Obama's losses? Democrats held 256 seats and lost 63 of them. That's a scale generally comparable to Clinton's.

Another factor that made the losses so large was that the Democrats picked up so many swing seats in wave elections of their own in 2006 and 2008.

And Moran ignores the fact that Congress itself was broadly unpopular. At the beginning of the lame duck session in December after the elections, Congress' approval rating was a record-low 13 percent, according to a Gallup poll. While the president has coattails, the anti-incumbent nature of this midterm election almost certainly played a role.

Moran said that Democrats lost seats in the midterms because "a lot of people in this country … don't want to be governed by an African American.” There, he's implying a direct causation, and one that is impossible to measure. While race has undeniably played a large role in the history of American politics, it's clear that number of factors, including the economy, policy differences, and anti-incumbent sentiment played significantly larger roles in the Republican wave. Moran is willing to acknowledge these factors, and Hughes said creating jobs his top priority. But in his remarks to Alhurra, Moran clearly overstated the role Obama's race played in Democrats' midterm losses, and provided no evidence to support a claim that is largely immeasureable. So Moran gets a Total Malarkey.

Total Malarkey
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