Obama, Wright: How Much Damage?

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(l. to r.): William Thomas Cain /Getty; Chicago Tribune / MCT / Landov

Barack Obama and Rev. Jeremiah Wright

Voters have been running from Barack Obama since the Jeremiah Wright scandal erupted. A Zogby poll conducted this week in Indiana ahead of its key primary next Tuesday found that 21% of likely Democratic primary voters said they were less likely to vote for Obama as a result of his former pastor's statements. But why, exactly, are these and other voters fleeing? The answer could make the difference in Obama's chances to win the nomination and to pull out election victory in November. And it could tell us something about the state of racial politics in America.

There is a very small subset of voters who are sympathetic to Wright's expressions of respect for Louis Farakhan, his condemnation of America's 60-year bipartisan approach to Israel and his suspicions about U.S. involvement in the creation of the AIDS virus. The vast majority thinks his views on those issues are at least wrong, if not outright offensive. But what conclusion do those voters draw about Obama as a result? Do they imagine that Obama believes the same things? Or do they think Obama disagrees with them, but question his credibility because of his belated disavowal of the preacher who holds them?

Obama can marshal a lot of evidence to show he doesn't believe what Wright believes: his personal history, his professional life, his voting record all show he has fairly mainstream if somewhat liberal views on U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

But Wright's inflammatory statements in the past week forced Obama to make a renunciation that undermined the credibility of his well-received Philadelphia speech on race, in which he explained why he listened to Wright's speeches to begin with. "The difficulty people would have is precisely that: if he has been going to that church for a long time how could he not know?" says Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center. The question now for Obama is which is worse — people thinking you agree with Wright, or people not believing your high-minded explanations for associating with him.

A Rasmussen poll out Friday tries to peel back some of these issues, and the answers are not particularly heartening for Obama. In a survey of 800 likely voters, Rasmussen finds that 58% think Obama has denounced Wright because it's politically convenient, while 30% say he did so because he was outraged (13% say they're not sure). Only 33% say they think Obama was surprised by Wright's views, while 52% say they think he was not.

Just as troubling for Obama, a majority of people associate his views with those of Wright: despite his denials, 56% said that it was somewhat or very likely that Obama shares some of Wright's views, while 35% said it was not very or not at all likely (8% were unsure). The survey shows a racial divide in the response: 55% of whites think Obama shares some of Wright's views, versus 47% of blacks and 74% of those identifying themselves as "other."

Associating Obama with Wright's radical views raises the specter of racial stereotyping. Those who impute to Obama radical views about AIDS, Israel or black nationalism are knowingly discounting his stated positions and making assumptions that may be influenced by his race. Just how much of that is going on is hard to measure. But if there's a racial component to voters' abandonment of Obama in the wake of the Wright affair, it's safe to say those voters aren't coming back.

Wounds caused by damaged credibility, of course, are also hard to heal. "The problem with credibility," says Pew's Keeter, "Is that people think of it as a fundamental character trait. Some measure of lack of honesty is damaging because it leads to a broader generalization."

Obama's approach to the problem appears to be to empahsize his mainstream views and shore up his credibility through other associations. Endorsements from people like former Hillary Clinton supporter and onetime Democratic chairman Joe Andrew "can help you stop the damage from this kind of affair," says Keeter. Maybe. But at least repairing damaged credibility is possible; healing the country's racial divide is a lot more difficult.