Race-Bait ’08: Lessons Learned from the Political Dirty Dozen

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A new report by Berkeley Law and Goldman School predicts race-baiting in the 2008 presidential election based on analysis of past campaigns

Berkeley, CA —December 26, 2007… In tight political races, candidates have been known to play the race card, one of the more insidious dirty tricks in a campaign’s arsenal. On the eve of the January Iowa caucus that kicks off the primary season, the presence of the most viable African-American presidential candidate in history, Sen. Barack Obama, brings the issue of race into high relief. If history is any guide, race-baiting—both implied and overt—may be the chosen tactic in the 2008 elections, according to a new report by the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and Goldman School of Public Policy.

Race-Bait ’08: Lessons Learned from the Political Dirty Dozen looks back at the last 24 years of campaigning and examines the 12 campaigns where the use of race made the difference. Candidates that played the race card to mobilize or drive away voters soundly defeated their opponents, often coming from behind to win.

“It’s not only Barack Obama who will have to combat race-based tactics,” says Chris Edley, dean of Berkeley Law School and an Obama supporter. “Any politician who backs positions that appeal to minorities is vulnerable. “In coming to grips with this political tactic, Edley says, it is vital to understand how appeals to racial bigotry, both subtle and unsubtle, have been used in the past. And it’s critical to assess how—with new media, new messages and new messengers—the race card may be used in the 2008 campaign.

That race-baiting is still regarded as an effective strategy is clear from the 2006 Tennessee senate race. Two weeks before that election, Democrat Harold Ford, an African-American, was in a statistical dead heat with his GOP opponent, Bob Corker. Republicans produced a TV commercial about an unproven claim that Ford had attended a Playboy mansion party. The ad ended with a scantily clad Playboy bunny saying, “Call me, Harold.” And the ad’s punch-line, “He’s just not right,” might as well have read, “He’s just not white.” Did the ad turn the tide? Despite howls of protest, it ran for more than a week—until the polls began turning against Ford, who ultimately lost.

Some of the campaigns recounted in the Dirty Dozen are familiar—most notoriously the “Willie Horton” attack on Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. Others are less well-known, like the successful 2006 congressional bid of Tom Tancredo, a GOP presidential candidate in the 2008 election cycle, who demonized immigrants with ads that declared, “They’re coming to kill you.” Whether race is merely insinuated or raised directly, it seems inevitable that some candidates or independent voices will find the basest way to rally their base.

“This report provides valuable context for understanding how campaigns play the race card to win, and what tactics to look for in the 2008 presidential election,” says co-author David Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Obama supporter.

The report concludes with the top 20 lessons for 2008 political candidates. A sampling:

  • Be prepared for implicit race-baiting messages. Even as recently as 2006, campaign managers have been willing to use implicit messages and activate deep-rooted stereotypes through ads such as the TV ad “Call Me” against former Rep. Harold Ford.
  • Counter-attack swiftly—but not with the same tactic. Rather than attacking the implicit racial message head-on, Michael Dukakis in 1988 chose to actually run his own “Willie Horton” ad using the same tactic. By leaving the counter-attack to others and waiting until the last few weeks of the campaign, Dukakis made a critical error.
  • In the era of YouTube and the blogosphere, racial verbal gaffes can cause irreparable damage. Sen. George Allen’s “Macaca” and Sen. Joe Biden’s “clean” gaffes most likely would not have become news stories in another decade, when technology could not have made their remarks available as fuel for public outrage. The Internet’s viral nature ensures that a malicious racial attack can be duplicated countless times before it is even noticed by the mainstream press.
  • Campaigns are not just black-and-white anymore. In 2008 Hispanic voters may turn out to be a swing vote in several states where their presence was felt in 2006. The immigration debate is often a cover for those using an implicit race play to activate prejudice against Latinos.
  • Some issues, especially crime, are race-card carriers.” It is difficult to talk about getting “tough on crime”in campaigns without noting that minorities are disproportionately incarcerated for violent and drug-related crime. When a candidate decides to use crime as an issue, it is very easy to prime racial prejudice in the electorate, as the Willie Horton ad demonstrates.
  • Outingthe race-card strategy of your opponents carries risks. The two counter-strategies to a perceived race-play are both risky: 1) Call attention to it to spark a backlash against your opponent. This risks having the race-card accusation being turned on you. I.e. “He’s just reading too much into this message and trying to play the race card.”2) Ignore the implicit race message and steer the debate onto higher ground. But ignoring the message might only exacerbate its impact.
  • African American candidates may be better positioned to assume the role of racial healer.“David Dinkins played this role in the 1989 New York mayoral race, effectively casting himself as the sensible alternative when his opponent was making high-profile verbal gaffes. A minority candidate may have more credibility with voters as someone who can bridge the racial divide.

The Chief Justice Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity and Diversity at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law is a multidisciplinary, collaborative venture to produce research, research-based policy prescriptions, and curricular innovation on issues of racial and ethnic justice in California and the nation.

The Goldman School of Public Policy , founded at the University of California, Berkeley in 1969, is one of the top policy programs in the country. Focusing on both domestic and international policy, the school prepares students for careers that include policy analysis, program evaluation, and management and planning. It is recognized internationally as a source of outstanding professionals in the field.