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New InsiderAdvantage Poll Obama’s speech meets unsympathetic ears with Americans

By Gary Reese

March 20, 2008Barack Obama’s speech about race on Tuesday impressed many who witnessed it or read it. But most of America did neither, and many of them  -- white and black -- were less persuaded of the speech’s capacity to heal racial wounds, or to put the issue of race behind Obama as he continues his quest for the White House.

That’s according to a new poll by InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion.

First, we screened poll respondents to find those who were aware that Obama’s pastor was in the news. A startling 82% knew about Obama’s speech, and about the controversy surrounding the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Of those who knew about the controversy and the speech, we asked, “Taking all this into account, are you more or less likely to support Obama for president?”

Less likely (52%)
More likely (19%)
About the same (27%)
No opinion (2%)

The poll was conducted March 19 among 1,051 Americans. After filtering out those not aware of Rev. Wright and Obama’s speech about him, the sample is 807, for a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2%. The data have been weighted for age, race, gender and partisan affiliation.

It’s easy to read too much into this poll. In the long-term, Obama’s speech about the racially insensitive political and social views of Rev. Wright may come to its final resting place in history books for being a signal moment in America’s tortured story of race relations. But in the short-attention-span theatre of a heated presidential race, it may amount to little more than a loud blip in an ever-fluxing news cycle.

Even so, the poll displays no numbers flattering to Obama. Most startling is that blacks by 56% to 31% said the speech made them less likely to vote for him. That may be because Obama had some gutsy perspectives on blacks as well as on whites, and black observers of the speech may have been annoyed. But it’s hard to imagine that there’s going to be an appreciable retreat by blacks from the Obama column.

Democrats disapproved 48% to 28%, which looks sobering for Obama on first glance, but might portend otherwise. If blacks irritated by Obama’s remarks will return to the fold, than impressing whites is probably a more vital read on the numbers. And Democratic whites were more sympathetic with the speech’s message than black ones.

The disturbing numbers for Obama are the independent voters. By 56% to 13%, they said they’re less likely to vote for him because of the speech.

“In my weekly Creators Syndicate column that I penned just hours before this poll, I wrote that I had no idea how the country would react to the Obama speech,” said Matt Towery, CEO of InsiderAdvantage.

“And I’m always wary of polling race. People aren’t always completely forthcoming on such a touchy subject.

“But there’s no way around the numbers as they read all across the board. They are consistent in every demographic we measured. Most people didn’t have a gut positive reaction to Obama’s speech,” he said.

“Doubtless many formed their opinions not on the speech itself, but on reports of it filtered through their favorite news media outlets. So intended or unintended biases of media may have trickled down to many poll respondents.

“It’s important to note, however, that we carefully crafted the poll’s questions. We never mentioned the words ‘race’ or ‘controversy,’ or explained what all the fuss was about. Our first question was simply, ‘Are you aware of the situation regarding Sen. Barack Obama’s church pastor and the past public remarks he has made?’

“So there was a deliberate effort not to ‘push poll’ respondents, or to influence their answers in any way,” Towery said. “Also note that only one out of 50 poll respondents had no opinion.”

The results of the poll, while not reassuring to Obama, can be probably be overcome as other events unfold. Already the news cycle is turning to the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion.

Still, the charismatic Democratic presidential frontrunner likely has created a genuine problem for himself: In order to fizzle the flame that Rev. Wright ignited with his passionate, public racism, Obama had to forfeit the promise implicit in this campaign to date; that of moving beyond and above racialist rhetoric in American politics.

On Tuesday, he changed course and said essentially the opposite: That we all need to face our unpleasant history. His words mirrored a rhetorical and policy mantra that many black public figures of the last generation have tried to make mainstream.

In a year of great unease over foreign wars and a wilting economy, kicking the (lightly) sleeping dog of race in America may have been a mistake, unavoidable though it may have been.  Click here for crosstabs.


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