The Prospect of a Black President of the United States

At this early stage of the campaign, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, an African American who was the first black to head the Harvard Law Review, has emerged as the main challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. What do the polls tell us about Obama’s prospects?

A recent Newsweek poll said that 93 percent of all Americans would be willing to vote for a qualified black candidate for president. A clear majority said they believed that the nation was ready to elect an African American to its highest office.

But in nationwide polls of registered Democrats, Clinton is still the top choice. Obama is second. In New Hampshire, site of the first primary election, Obama is running neck and neck with Clinton. In Iowa, where the first caucuses will be held next January, Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards are in the lead, with Clinton in fourth place.

But the question on many Democrats’ minds is whether either Obama or Clinton is electable. Indeed, polls of head-to-head matchups show Edwards running better than Clinton or Obama when paired against John McCain or Rudy Giuliani, the GOP frontrunners.

A big question facing Obama is whether people are telling the pollsters the truth. In 1982 Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, a black man, narrowly lost the race for governor of California despite a comfortable lead in pre-election polls. This so-called Bradley Effect, where black candidates do worse than their poll numbers suggest, has been demonstrated time and time again over the past quarter century.

It appears that many people who tell pollsters they favor a black candidate suddenly revert to their racial prejudices once they are in the sanctity of the polling booth.