by Keith Reeves, associate professor of political science at Swarthmore (Pa.) College
Keith Reeves ’88, director of the Center for Social and Policy Studies at Swarthmore, is an associate professor in the Political Science Department. A member of the faculty of the John F, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard from 1994-2001, his book, Voting Hopes or Fears?: White Voters, Black Candidates, and Racial Politics in America (Oxford University Press, 1997), was used by the Deval Patrick campaign. Write to him at [email protected]
With a record number of African-American candidates running for office this election cycle, it was perhaps inevitable that two of them – Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, Jr. and civil rights attorney Deval Patrick of Massachusetts – would be “racially Swift-Boated” in heavily criticized political advertisements.
Ford, who narrowly lost his bid to replace retiring Senate majority leader Bill Frist, would have been the first African-American serving in that body of Congress from the South in more than a century. Notably, there have been only four black United States Senators: two who represented Mississippi during Reconstruction; Edward Brooke, a Republican from Massachusetts who served two terms, from 1967 to 1979; and Carol Moseley-Braun, a Democrat from Illinois who served a single term in the 1990s.
Deval Patrick, a former assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Clinton Administration, was elected the first black governor of Massachusetts – a feat largely unimaginable three decades ago given the bitter racial conflict over mandatory busing.
Ten years ago, I published Voting Hopes or Fears? a path-breaking, albeit controversial, book that examines the thorny subject of how black candidates competing in majority-white settings fare, especially against the backdrop of the kind of racially charged campaigns we’ve seen this election cycle. In it, I argued that decades after passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, whites, by and large, remain resistant to the election of blacks to public office. That widespread resistance can be explained, in large part, by election campaign appeals to whites’ racial fears and sentiments. Based on fresh empirical evidence examining white voters’ attitudes towards black candidates and the racial framing of campaign news coverage, I documented that racial discrimination against black candidates is contemporary, specific, and identifiable.
As I reflect upon my own election post-mortems, I am extremely gratified that Massachusetts voters, at least, upended my thesis.
Racial Ads in the 2006 Campaign
A great many parallels have been drawn between the political ads run against both Ford and Patrick and the infamous Willie Horton ad that plagued then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in his 1988 presidential bid against then-vice president George H.W. Bush.
As a longtime observer and scholar of American racial campaign politics, permit me a few observations.
Much of the nation seems to have forgotten that Bush’s 1988 victory is one of the greatest electoral comebacks in American politics. Seeking to fracture Dukakis’s 17-point advantage in midsummer, the Bush campaign – under the direction of strategist Lee Atwater – orchestrated a barrage of campaign attacks, speeches, literature, and political commercials, all featuring a black convicted criminal named Willie Horton and the deficiencies of the Massachusetts prison-furlough system that let him out of jail.
Atwater actually boasted that with Horton as Dukakis’s running mate, “there’s going to be votes coming up just like a cash register.” The symbolism of the infamous “revolving door” political advertisement was both powerful and effective; Dukakis, painted as a Northern liberal who coddled criminals, lost the election decisively.
Willie Horton’s mugshot on the “Weekend Pass” ad in 1988.
Atwater’s political exploitation of the “menacing black male” stereotype became a more contemporary shorthand signal to campaign operatives that race could be used effectively to appeal to white voters’ racial fears and resentments.
Not surprisingly, the strange career of the Willie Hortonesque political ad would rear itself in various campaigns over the ensuing years; most notably in the 1990 North Carolina U.S. senatorial contest between Republican incumbent Jesse Helms and Democrat Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte who is black.
Fast-forward now to this year’s biracial political contests in Tennessee and Massachusetts.
Much was made of the Republican-financed attack spot mocking Ford’s joie de vivre. While the ad painted the young, single congressman as “slick,” it is the few seconds of tape where a scantily dressed and flirty white actress excitedly volunteers that she met Ford at a “Playboy party” that had some howling “foul,” and others charging racism. The commercial ends with the blond coyly saying, “Harold, call me.”
Deval Patrick, Governer-elect of Massachusetts
The veiled racial connotations in the anti-Ford ad are vacuous and inane.
I think differently about the more overt racial overtones of the Massachusetts governor’s race.
More in keeping with the history of her party where issues of crime and punishment are center, Republican Lt. Governor Kerry Healey ran a series of controversial spots attacking Patrick’s legal representation of a convicted rapist and cop-killer. In one commercial, for instance, the Healey campaign asks, “While lawyers have a right to defend admitted cop killers do we really want one as governor?” And in another, Patrick is linked to his defense of the rapist: “What kind of a person defends a brutal rapist?” The implication was unmistakable. And voters were outraged. A CBS 4/Boston Globe poll conducted before Election Day showed the Lt. Governor trailing Patrick by some 25 percentage points. Patrick won a landslide victory by a margin of 56 to 35. In Tennessee, Congressman Ford lost narrowly – 51 to 48 percent.
What Lies Ahead?
A significantly changed electoral landscape in 2006 produced something of a political avalanche of opposition – against just about all things Republican (including three high-profile black candidates who ran under the GOP-banner: football-great Lynn Swann of Pennsylvania and Kenneth Blackwell of Ohio, running for governor in their respective states; and Michael Steele who ran a well-orchestrated campaign for a Senate seat in Maryland).
U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (Tenn. 9th District – D)
“Have we witnessed the long-awaited death of the Willie Hortonesque political commercial?”
For one, changing demographics in both states – and in the country, at large – have a lot to do with voters’ disgust of “Swift-Boating” of the racial kind. Meanwhile, moderate, Independent voters appear especially turned off by the racial undercurrents in political advertising.
And then there is the political pressure being brought to bear in the financial marketplace. Reportedly, black leaders and union groups pressured Wal-Mart to cut ties with one of its consultants whose brainchild was the incendiary anti-Ford ad.
But I strongly suspect that there is one other latent factor at work: the looming presence of Illinois senator Barack Obama, a potential candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
In Harold Ford, Jr. and Deval Patrick, white voters saw a bit of Senator Obama in each man: Ivy-League, moderate, articulate, non-threatening, charismatic black men who excite cross-racial appeal while moving past the racial divisions of the civil rights generation.
If there is a broader lesson to be gleaned from Patrick’s overwhelming victory and Ford’s narrow defeat, it is that, finally, white voters no longer have the appetite for the nasty racial politics historically served up by political campaign operatives.
And to that I say: “Run, Barack! Run!”