Ideology, politics and character alone won’t determine the outcome of the presidential election. Voters also have a heady sense of historic occasion, a phenomenon that favors Sen. Barack Obama.
He would be the nation’s first black president, and many people want to be a part of the momentum. A record turnout is expected. And witness the thousands who show up at an Obama uber-rally, knowing that years hence, they might say to some wide-eyed listener, “You know, I was there.”
Like it was Woodstock. Or D-Day.
“This is indeed a historic election of epic proportions. It looms large on the Richter scale of history, so to speak,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin.
“The maltreatment of African Americans has been the great stain on the American experiment and has been at the heart of our politics since the beginning,” Mr. Buchanan said. “For an African American to be a serious presidential candidate, let alone be elected, is a milestone in resolving racial issues as a source of contention.”
“This sense of an important moment is not far below the surface in many people’s thinking. One of the great questions for the horse-race folks is not only whether the ‘Bradley effect’ will come into play. Equally important is a potential ‘reverse Bradley effect,’ ” he added.
The “Bradley effect” refers to contradictory behaviors in white voters who tell pollsters they would vote for a black candidate — then do otherwise in the voting booth. The phenomenon was first identified in 1983 by Charles P. Henry, a professor of African-American studies at the University of California at Berkeley after the defeat of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in his 1982 bid for California governor.
Mr. Bradley led in the polls, but lost the election.
But a sense of historic occasion is not everything.
“I agree that many Americans understand the historic and cultural implications of Senator Obama’s candidacy,” Mr. Henry told The Washington Times. “However, I don’t believe that they would vote for him on those grounds alone.
“Most of them believe he is truly the best candidate to get us out of the various serious problems that confront us. If they believed [Sen. John] McCain were the better choice, I don’t think they would vote for Obama for symbolism alone,” he said.
The rest of the planet is quite taken with the Democratic hopeful as an icon of sorts. A Reader’s Digest survey of 17,000 respondents in 17 countries released Wednesday found that Mr. Obama is a global favorite, trumping Mr. McCain in every country but the U.S. Mr. McCain won favorable numbers on a variety of issues by a small margin among American respondents.
“The poll suggests that America is still a nation that inspires — even at a time when many abroad disapprove of some of our most visible policies. To much of the world, an African-American presidential candidate serves as a reminder of America’s promise and of the soaring ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, this particular African American born in Hawaii, with a father from Kenya, raised partly in Indonesia — is truly a citizen of the world,” said Carl Cannon, Washington correspondent for the magazine.
Pollsters have also plumbed the level of emotional engagement in the election stateside.
“Voter interest in the campaign remains extraordinary: Fully 81 percent continue to say that they have given a lot of thought to the presidential election, the highest ever measured at this stage in a campaign,” said a Pew Research survey of 3,016 adults conducted Oct. 16-19.
More respondents called Mr. Obama more “inspiring” and “down-to-earth” than his Republican rival — though Mr. McCain won when it came to voter perceptions about his patriotism and qualifications.
Race is still a factor, and an evolving one. Overall, 21 percent of voters said they know someone who will not vote for Mr. Obama “because he is black,” the survey said.
“Far more Obama supporters than McCain supporters say they personally know someone who will not vote for Obama because he is black (27 percent vs. 10 percent).”
More Democrats (29 percent) than Republicans (10 percent) also say they know someone who will not vote for Mr. Obama because he is black. There is no difference by race in these findings, however, with roughly equal numbers of white (21 percent) and black (22 percent) respondents saying they know a voter affected by racial issues.