Is Mitt Romney playing the race card on welfare reform? It was a softball question for three Democratic pollsters sitting on a National Journal panel hours before the Democratic National Convention opened Tuesday.
“Yes,” replied Celinda Lake.
“Yes,” said Margie Omero.
“Yes,” echoed John Anzalone.
But for Joel Benenson, President Obama’s chief pollster, the question was fraught with political complication. His boss has long been leery of the debate over voters’ racial prejudices.
“No,” Benenson replied bluntly when asked at the NJ event whether Romney is winning over white voters with an indisputably inaccurate ad accusing Obama of weakening welfare-to-work laws. Is Romney playing the race card? “Have to ask the Romney campaign if they are doing that,” Benenson said in an interview before the panel discussion among Lake, Omero, and Anzalone.
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On the sidelines of last week’s GOP convention, Romney adviser Ron Kaufman said the campaign was not exploiting racial tensions – and accused a reporter who made the claim of playing the so-called race card. (Disclosure: A co-author of this article interviewed both Kaufman and Benenson).
Kaufman’s remark sparked a conversation about how far Romney would go to drive down Obama’s already low appeal among white non-college educated voters.
Tuesday’s exchange with Benenson raises a question: Why doesn’t Obama want to say race is an issue in this election?
Lake, one of the three Democratic pollsters, likened Obama’s predicament to the Catch 22 a woman confronts when facing discrimination: It’s fine and even “powerful” if somebody speaks up on the woman’s behalf, Lake said, but the woman herself can’t cry foul or she will be dismissed as a whiner. “They say,” Lake said, mockingly, “the girls are calling sexism.”
Donna Brazile, a leading Democratic strategist who specializes in courting minority voters, said Obama has no choice but to turn the other cheek. He doesn’t want to be accused of playing racial politics himself.
“(Obama and his team) are making the right decision not to ‘take the bait,’’’ Brazile said in an email exchange. “We have seen time and time again that our short-lived conversations on race are both superficial and disingenuous.”
On that, Benenson would agree with Brazile and other Democrats. But he differs from much of the rest of the political community on whether Romney is exploiting racial tensions. Not only does virtually every Democratic strategist believe the GOP nominee is playing the race card, so do some GOP operatives – including some in Romney’s own campaign.
According to senior GOP strategists who have worked both for President Bush and Romney, internal GOP polling and focus groups offer convincing evidence that the welfare ad is hurting Obama. Also, the welfare issue, generally speaking, triggers anger in white blue-collar voters that is easily directed toward Democrats.
Internal data from both parties suggest that some white voters who had backed Obama have moved to Romney in part because of the ad, which plays on inaccurate and divisive racial stereotypes about welfare reform and race. These particular white voters tend to inaccurately view welfare as an entitlement primarily benefiting minorities, the data suggests.
Romney’s chief advertising strategist Ashley O’Connor said last week it was their most effective TV spot.
Despite Benenson’s statement that the welfare ad had no effect, Obama quickly countered with an ad featuring former President Clinton, who signed the welfare-to-work legislation in the 1990s and vouched for Obama’s approach.
For as long as Obama has been in national politics, Benenson has disputed polls that suggest a link between white voters’ views about race and Obama’s standing.
One of the most respected pollsters in politics, Benenson said he believes that white voters who are motivated by race are already anti-Obama voters, and that elections turn on bigger concerns – “hope and change” in 2008, the economy now.
Whether it’s a matter of messaging or fear of backlash, it is indisputable that Obama has a history of talking about race selectively and only on his own terms.
In 2008, race surfaced as an issue during the primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Obama, in part because of the emergence during the heat of their battle of television clips of sermons by Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright. Former President Clinton fed the narrative with comments that seemed racially tinged.