Evolutionary Leaps and American Public Opinion
By Al Giordano
Nate Silver, addressing the question of What Is Obama's Ceiling?, makes, as usual, a lot of sense:
The better a candidate's standing in the polls, the harder it ought to be pick up additional support. In part, this is simply because the more voters that you have in your column, the fewer there are available to convert. But this is still a highly partisan country, we tend to have close elections, and things certainly aren't going to be any easier for a black candidate...
He then borrows an anecdote from Ben Smith:
An Obama supporter, who canvassed for the candidate in the working-class, white Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown recently, sends over an account that, in various forms, I've heard a lot in recent weeks.
"What's crazy is this," he writes. "I was blown away by the outright racism, but these folks are f***ing undecided. They would call him a n----r and mention how they don't know what to do because of the economy."
And draws this conclusion:
If those sorts of people are the undecideds -- and when Obama is winning Pennsylvania by 12 points or something, that's probably what we're looking at -- then Obama really is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Further gains are going to be difficult to come by, which means that his polls are more likely to go down than to continue going up. (Indeed, our model assumes that the race will tighten some).
Scientists are divided over whether the evolution of species follows a straight and plodding path or has experienced relatively sudden "leaps."
I won't wander into that debate. But I do find a 2004 experiment at the University of Texas at Austin to be possibly relevant to the 2008 elections. There, engineers and scientists forced an evolutionary leap on bacteria in a laboratory essentially by "stressing the patient." A small adjustment in amino acids, and, presto, a new mutation was born.
The current economic crisis, according to the American Psychologists Association, has stressed eight of ten Americans significantly.
And this is where race-baiters like Ron Fournier of the Associated Press have the story bass-ackwards. They're asking aloud and disingenuously so, "Is there racism in America?" I mean, like, duh: Did anybody ever claim there isn't? Their obsession - there's a CNN special on the topic on the air right now - masks a fear of the inverse: What if, suddenly, the story of this election becomes that moment in history when millions of American citizens evolved beyond fixed patterns and fears regarding race?
In the primaries, it was relatively easy to bring so many young white people and those of all ages, particularly west of the Mississippi, to their first ever primary or caucus vote for an African-American candidate for president. The Iowa caucuses, in particular, had an equal and opposite inspirational effect on the nation's African-American citizens. Most of them knew it was a very big deal.
Between the primaries and the present, other demographic groups that capitalism systematically attempts to divide among workers and the middle class - notably Hispanic Americans, and also others - have likewise moved big time into the Obama column after an initial skepticism and rejection in the primary ballots. Nobody can honestly say that tensions did not exist between Latinos and blacks, particularly in places - from gerrymandered legislative districts to schools and prisons - where the two categories of people have been forced to compete for terrain. And yet we're on the verge of a 70 percent Hispanic vote for Obama in four weeks.
Now it comes to what Silver calls "scraping the bottom of the barrel": The mineworkers and the steelworkers and other rust-belt unions have been on the front lines of the conversation, as has any Obama volunteer or field organizer up and down the Appalachian range. (Organizers in the western hills of North Carolina, for example, have told me to expect a five percent drop in the "Kerry vote" in the rural western counties based on racism, while others disagree: political consultant Gary Pearse told me, "there are not many North Carolinians that cast a vote for John Kerry that won't also vote for Obama," and the election will shortly determine which observation is more accurate.)
Major electoral prizes like Ohio may hang in the balance of this question.
The code-speak of the McCain campaign - and especially, in recent days, from its vice presidential candidate (someone who, herself, has led a life apart and segregated from African-Americans) and other surrogates - along the lines of "we don't know who Obama really is" has been a transparent attempt to invoke those heavily ingrained fears among certain sectors of the white population.
The multiple anecdotal reports of people using the N-word disparagingly but while also stating they're troubled about the economy and therefore undecided may indicate, rather than bad news, a glimpse of a possible evolutionary advance four Tuesdays from now.
The patient is being stressed, and as Dr. House or those University of Texas engineers can tell you, that process can sometimes lead to extraordinary discoveries.
What happens if the economic stresses suddenly push people, however reluctantly, into voting in their economic self-interest even if it means voting against their own racial prejudices? Well, then you're looking at an Electoral College landslide beyond even the current map and projections, and even at some unexpected states (Georgia, West Virginia or Mississippi, for example) that could surprisingly turn "blue."
(And if that leap occurs among even a relatively small number of folks in Appalachian Southwestern and Southeastern Ohio, that will definitively turn that state's 20 Electoral College votes toward Obama: that's part of the reason why Obama will be along the Kentucky border in Cincinnati and also in the town of Portsmouth - population 20,000 - tomorrow, and why he just spent three days in western North Carolina: he's stressing the patient in those strategic corners of Appalachia where the campaign's own data indicates some possible openings. That's also why you're about to see Joe Biden hit his hometown of Scranton together with the Clintons: this is the great electoral lab test, now underway.)
I'm not saying that it's going to happen (or that it has to happen for Obama to win; the math is there without having to scrape that barrel). Evolutionary leaps, if they exist, are not everyday occurrences. What I'm saying is that the patient - that racially fearful white American - is stressed and heavily so. And that's one of the objective conditions - according to at least one laboratory study - that leads to leaps in evolution and, maybe, just maybe, to mutations in the evolution of public opinion.
In the lab it took some stressed conditions plus a catalyst - some amino acids - to cause a species to evolve.
In human history, it takes stressed conditions... plus a movement.