There are many parts of the country where the local culture makes people unafraid to be quoted saying something racist, but not many of these places are interesting during the general election — as in, not many of them are in swing states. Racists in South Carolina (by all means, not the entire population, of course) were only interesting during the Republican presidential primary, when even Mitt Romney's campaign hinted that Newt Gingrich won because he got snippy with Juan Williams, whom they considered a stand-in for President Obama, because he's black.
But there's no chance South Carolina will be in play this fall. Where's the next best place to find racists? Small town Ohio, where The New York Times' Sabrina Tavernese reports Friday on the traditionally Democratic-leaning residents of Steubenville, Ohio, who don't want to vote for a black person, even though they've had almost four years to get used to one living in the White House.
Racist-spotting in poor old Ohio follows a formula: First there's the straight-talking local realist, who says he knows plenty of racists. Then there are the racists who are stupid enough to say racist things on the record. Then there is math. Today the Times quotes this realist:
“Certain precincts in this county are not going to vote for Obama,” said John Corrigan, clerk of courts for Jefferson County… “I don’t want to say it, but we all know why.”
A retired state employee, Jason Foreman, interjected, “I’ll say it: it’s because he’s black.”
Back in 2008, a lot of liberals were nervous Obama was overperforming in polls because of unspoken racism: In October of that year, The New Yorker's George Packer reported from Columbus, Ohio, about 150 miles west of Steubenville:
Like everyone else at the office, [union organizer Lisa] Hetrick had a story about a racist colleague, relative, or friend. “Oh God, it’s terrible,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do! They’re rednecks.”
Then there are the out-and-proud racists. From Friday's Times:
“I’ll just come right out and say it: he was elected because of his race,” said Sara Reese, a bank employee who said she voted for Ralph Nader in 2008, even though she usually votes Democrat…
“He was like, ‘Here I am, I’m black and I’m proud,’ ” said Lesia Felsoci, a bank employee drinking a beer in an Applebee’s. “To me, he didn’t have a platform. Black people voted him in, that’s why he won. It was black ignorance.”
Back in 2008, The New Yorker reported from Inez, Ohio:
[Retired state employee J. K.] Patrick himself feared that Obama’s race would threaten his own security and well-being. He said that it would be only natural for a black President to avenge the historical wrongs that his people had suffered at the hands of whites. “I really don’t want an African-American as President,” he said. “I think he would put too many minorities in positions over the white race. That’s my opinion.”
And then both get to the mathematical reason these racists are more than just a curiosity. The Times reports:
Mr. Obama barely won this county in 2008 — 48.9 percent to John McCain’s 48.7 percent. Four years earlier, John Kerry had an easier time here, winning 52.3 percent to 47.2 percent over George W. Bush.
Four years ago, it was possible Obama wouldn't win Ohio at all. Many people were worried about "the Bradley effect" — that polls would overstate the popularity of a black candidate because a small number of people lie to pollsters so they won't be seen as racists. Hillary Clinton had beaten Obama by 41 points in West Virginia and 35 points in Kentucky, "unheard-of margins for the party front-runner late in the primaries," The New Yorker reported. But Obama ended up winning Ohio by 4 percentage points — higher than Real Clear Politics' polling average before the election, which had Obama with a smaller 2.5-point lead. This year, if Mitt Romney wins Ohio — plus the four remaining biggest swing states Obama won last time — he'll still loses the election, The Wall Street Journal reports.
It's not that there aren't racists in America, or that there aren't enough racists in swing states for Obama to lose the election based on something other than his policies. But why pick on poor old Ohio? You can find racists everywhere, even in Brooklyn.