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The Four Big Questions

Has America's racial divide narrowed? Is the country still divided into red and blue? Do Americans want more from government? Has the electorate changed dramatically?

November 02, 2008|Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook | Wallsten and Hook are Times staff writers.

Washington — Iowa gave the first sign that the American political landscape had changed.
Democrats in an overwhelmingly white state, many from small towns and farms, said an African American man from Chicago was the best choice for president -- and by a convincing margin.
Barack Obama went on to build a broader coalition than any previous black candidate, winning the Democratic nomination on an agenda of "change." John McCain emerged as the GOP nominee, despite a history of breaking from Republican beliefs. He too promised "change" from the nation's current course.
On Tuesday, as results from the presidential election roll in, so will clues to what kind of change the nation wants, and to how much it has changed in the last four years.
Who wins, and where, will shed light on the nation's feelings on race, the role of government and the hold of partisanship on the public dialogue. Here are four big questions arising from the 2008 presidential campaign:

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Has America's racial divide narrowed?

Watch Obama on television, and he will often be framed by flags and furnishings reminiscent of the Oval Office. During his overseas trip this summer, Obama enjoyed warm banter with the likes of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the two men standing at twin lecterns beneath a crystal chandelier.

Americans have watched Obama act presidential, and he has worked to make them comfortable with the idea of a black man -- and a relative newcomer to the national scene -- as the nation's leader.

If voters give him the job, it will cap years of progress in race relations. Prejudice and inequality remain, but a growing black middle class has put more white Americans in contact with blacks, particularly in the workplace. In turn, racial attitudes have softened.

Still, Americans have never seen an African American cast so forcefully as a potential president. By standing as an equal in debates with McCain, by presenting TV ads that show white people listening intently to his words, has Obama created a more colorblind nation?

"Fifteen years ago, it would have been inconceivable for many people to think about a black person as president of the United States. It required this demographic change of younger people with more liberal attitudes coming to the fore," said Reynolds Farley, a University of Michigan sociologist who studies interactions among races.

Facing a more receptive public, Obama benefited further by creating an "aura of the presidency" in his public images, which helped overcome long-held negative stereotypes that some whites still hold of blacks, Farley said.

Public opinion surveys suggest that racial attitudes have changed during the campaign. Growing numbers of people believe that blacks and whites have an equal chance of "getting ahead in today's society," a New York Times/CBS News poll found last week.

Some 64% of respondents saw equal opportunity in America, up 13 percentage points from July. Among blacks, the pollsters also found a 13-point jump in those who saw equal opportunity, to 43% today. Fewer Americans now say that the people they know would decline to vote for a black candidate.

Looking back, it is hard to remember how high the hurdles were for a black presidential candidate.

Obama won in Iowa, where 2.3% of voters are black, and in other overwhelmingly white states, such as Wisconsin. But later, Hillary Rodham Clinton's appeals to "hardworking Americans, white Americans," appeared to expose a weakness in Obama's campaign, as millions of whites flocked to her.

The videos of Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., saying "God damn America" nearly sank Obama's campaign, identifying him with racial divisiveness offensive to many whites.

Still, Obama seems to have successfully presented himself as different from some nationally known black leaders of the past -- not angry, not fiery. And Americans have increasingly come to see him as someone like themselves.

About 55% said that Obama has values and a background they can identify with -- about the same as for McCain -- an October survey for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found. For Obama, that was a 10-point gain from April.

In 2004, Democratic nominee John F. Kerry carried 41% of the white non-Latino vote, exit polls found. On Tuesday, that will be one benchmark for studying whether racial attitudes have changed.

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Is the country still divided into red and blue?

Turn on the radio in Joplin, Mo., and you may hear the ominous sounds of police sirens as a narrator warns that Obama will take away your guns, robbing you of the right to defend yourself. Visit a church in Florida, and you may find literature promoting a measure to ban same-sex marriage.

The familiar culture wars are raging. But unlike the 2004 campaign, when questions of God, guns and gay marriage drove much of the electorate, the weight of the conversation this year has consisted of appeals to the political center.

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