President Barack Obama signs the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
Say what you like about Wally Hudson—and people do—he knows his audience. For months, the chairman of Virginia’s Mecklenburg County Republican Committee displayed pictures of Barack Obama as a drug dealer, witch doctor and caveman on his party’s Facebook page, resisting calls from higher-ups to remove them. “We know our regular readers, who are good conservatives,” Hudson told The Washington Post. “They’re gonna get a kick out of it.”
The presence of a black president has posed a real challenge in self-control for many Republicans, who were raised on a diet of welfare queens and Willie Horton. And when their opponent is a black man with a surname that rhymes with “Osama,” the temptation is just too great. During Mitt Romney’s ill-fated trip to the United Kingdom in July, his adviser claimed that Romney appreciates the “special relationship” more than Obama because he is “part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage.” Newt Gingrich insists that Obama’s “not a real president.” Donald Trump wants to see another birth certificate.
These statements violate the most important tenet of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy: plausible deniability. In his diary, Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, described the operational blueprint for a new electoral landscape built on bigotry. “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks,” Nixon told him. “The key is to devise a system that recognizes that while not appearing to.”
For some time now, there has been precious little to be gained by attacking a candidate’s race in elections on a national level, and plenty to lose. And that’s truer today than ever. Polls indicate people are far less likely to vote a Mormon into the White House than an African-American. Indeed, Americans feel more comfortable with a black man as commander in chief than a black man having a relationship with a white woman. National campaigns that go negative on race are assumed to be negative on many other things, from gender to modernity. Moreover, Obama is no easy target: on every metric concerning how easy it is for voters to relate to candidates, he has always scored better than his white opponents.
This has led some to argue that race is not a factor in this election. The Bradley effect is dead; long live the first black president. “Racists, real racists, are so insignificant now as to not matter,” claimed New York Daily News columnist Derek Hunter. “The days of them mattering died sometime after Democrats lost the South.” Too bad Trayvon Martin’s parents didn’t get that memo.
There are two problems with this. First, just because the election doesn’t center on Obama’s race doesn’t mean race is not a factor. Whether it’s Bill Clinton attacking Sister Souljah or George W. Bush speaking at Bob Jones University, race has always been a central part of American politics, whether black people were running for office or not.