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What The Rev. Wright Controversy Tells Us About The Media And Voters

In this week’s politics chat, we revisit a seminal moment from the 2008 Democratic primary. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone! Today, we’re going to use the short documentary we published about the 2008 Obama campaign and the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as a jumping-off point to talk about race, politics and how the media covers “scandals.” Here’s the documentary (we’ll also have a special FiveThirtyEight elections podcast documentary on this topic later this week):

But let’s start with this question: As the documentary makes clear, Obama’s support in Democratic primary polls didn’t really budge after video of the more inflammatory segments from Wright’s sermons blew up into a media firestorm. We don’t know, however, if that’s because voters never were going to ding Obama or if Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech on Wright’s comments and race in the U.S. generally (which came just five days after ABC News first aired snippets from Wright’s sermons on March 13) reassured them. Do you all have suspicions one way or the other?

Also, a special welcome to Mike Fletcher, our new colleague from The Undefeated! Welcome, Mike!

farai (Farai Chideya, senior writer): Hi, Mike!

mikefletcher (Mike Fletcher, senior writer at The Undefeated): Hello! Great to be here. On your question, I have to think it was a little of both. People probably thought what they thought, but to some on the fence, I bet Obama’s thoughtful and even-handed speech was reassuring.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): This is the funny thing about studying events in real time — it’s difficult to disentangle one thing from another. For instance, John McCain had his largest lead of the campaign against Obama right around the time of the controversy, but was that because of Wright or because McCain clinched the nomination around the same time? I honestly don’t know.

farai: I also think we in the media sometimes think we’re more influential than we are. Not everyone watches wall-to-wall politics coverage. And network news ratings have been declining for years. So although this was a huge firestorm in the media, I also wonder how deeply it saturated the electorate.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): It’s hard to tell because there wasn’t all that long a period between when the Wright tapes came out and when Obama gave his speech. But my hunch is that voters — at least Democratic voters — didn’t care about the story as much as the media did. It was at a fairly late stage of the primary when voters already had a lot of information about Obama, so the marginal impact of new information was relatively low. To the extent it might have rekindled stereotypes about Obama or reminded voters about his race — well, those voters were already voting for Hillary Clinton anyway.

mikefletcher: You got that right, Farai. I think it becomes noise for most people. But for those who had suspicions about Obama, thinking somehow he was more radical than he appeared, this “scandal” had the makings of something significant.

And to Nate’s point, most of those people probably were not going to vote for Obama anyway, not if they were suspicious.

harry: To Farai’s point, a CBS News poll taken during the controversy found that 28 percent had heard a lot about the Rev. Wright’s statements. That compares to 23 percent who had heard nothing at all about it. Most had heard some, not much or nothing at all.

farai: I have to point out, of course, the irony that during the 2008 race, Obama was being asked to refute being a Muslim at the same time that he also had to refute the words of his pastor of 20 years. Voters are not always consistent.

mikefletcher: To say the least … one thing we can’t overlook, though, is that the Obama campaign took this very seriously. Going back to their dis-invitation of Rev. Wright from Obama’s announcement ceremony, they were worried that voters would not know how to process black liberation theology.

farai: There’s also a part of the Obama narrative where, as a multi-racial man raised both in the U.S. and abroad, he arguably got racial cred by marrying a woman from the South Side of Chicago and also by going to a traditionally black church. Wright’s church was not just a place of worship but, as so many black churches are, a place where people convene to talk business and politics.

natesilver: In some sense, though, I wonder if voters had gotten to know Obama well enough by the time this really blew up that they knew Rev. Wright didn’t speak for him. Obama referred to Wright as “an old uncle” on a couple of occasions and that may have resonated with people. They weren’t so naive or literal-minded as to think, “Oh, Obama’s a closet radical, and this proves it.” The people who felt that way weren’t voting for Obama in the first place.

harry: Right. The majority of voters had an opinion of Obama by this point in the campaign. CBS News found that 68 percent of registered voters could form an opinion of Obama by late February 2008 (and that poll specifically gave respondents the option of answering “undecided” or that they don’t have an opinion). Among Democrats, it was 74 percent. That’s pretty high for a first-term senator from Illinois.

micah: Yeah, voters aren’t stupid. But that also gets us to another point: Even if the Wright controversy didn’t have much of an effect on the Democratic primary horse race, it did tell us something about how Obama, the media and voters would respond to the first black president, right?

natesilver: It showed us a little bit about how Obama stayed cool under pressure instead of wetting the bed.

mikefletcher: As to what that episode foretold about how the nation would see the first black president, I think there is an extra layer of skepticism in how people see him, which led him — early on, particularly — to be very cautious on the issue of race.

farai: I agree, Mike. I also think of this quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” One of the things that happened in this instance is that the Wright controversy exposed the very different cultural codes in which people speak. And looking past the “More Perfect Union” speech, we saw the country again separate into coded language and recriminations.

micah: So that’s interesting … the response to Wright was an early sign that there would be a not insignificant group of Americans who would traffic in these race-freighted “controversies” regarding Obama, right?

Farai, you mentioned the Muslim accusations, but there was also the flag pin kerfuffle and all the “proud of my country” craziness with Michelle Obama.

You can draw a line from a lot of criticisms of Obama, then and now, to his race, and that was becoming more and more clear in the spring and summer of 2008.

farai: First off, there has never been a moment in American history when race didn’t matter … just more and less contentious moments. Second, it’s worth contextualizing the controversies about Barack and Michelle Obama by also noting that Obama had to convince the black political establishment of his bona fides early in the 2008 race — early Congressional Black Caucus member endorsements went to Clinton, for instance. But nonetheless, once Obama was elected, there was a period of racial detente, followed by a backlash. A 2010 Gallup poll found 13 percent of Americans said they were greatly worried about race relations; today that figure is 35 percent.

mikefletcher: No doubt. Interestingly, it seems that having a black man in the Oval Office made many people freer with their sense of grievance. And the recriminations flow from there. Studies have found that with Obama as president more issues — things like health care reform — have become “racialized.”

natesilver: Let me bring up one point, just because I think it tends to get lost. You can argue that the handling of the Wright controversy was pretty important to superdelegates. They came to Obama’s side over the course of the campaign and — although he also won more pledged delegates — allowed him to avoid what could have been an incredibly fractious convention in Denver. If the superdelegates had the sense that Obama was a closet radical or was unelectable because of his association with Wright, they could have caused problems.

The general theme, I suppose, is that the Wright controversy may have mattered more to elites — the media and superdelegates — than to rank-and-file voters.

harry: Well, I think that’s why the story of the Wright controversy really wasn’t just a March story. It lasted all the way to early May and the Indiana and North Carolina primaries. Once Obama won North Carolina by a wide margin and came close in Indiana, superdelegates concluded that Obama wasn’t electoral poison.

mikefletcher: I have a hard time imagining Obama winning — in both the primary and general — if he had not cut ties with Rev. Wright. And that had to be painful for him. But can you imagine how that issue would have been distorted over time? I think it would have eventually trickled to the masses.

micah: So let’s talk a little bit more about how the media handled the Wright story. One thing that was interesting to me in going back through the coverage was that the media covered the Wright story mainly through the lens of the horse race — that this endangered Obama’s chances of winning — but as we’ve said, that’s not really right. But where does that leave us? Should this have been a one-day story? Not a story at all? Or should it have been covered differently?

natesilver: To situate the story a bit: The Wright tapes became a big story at a time when (i) the primary calendar was significantly slowing down and there was a long lull before the next key contest, in Pennsylvania, and (ii) Obama upsetting the Clinton juggernaut was becoming a less exciting story for the media than the possibility of a Clinton comeback. So I think one can always be skeptical of the timing and what metastasizes into a bigger controversy and what does not. This wasn’t the first time voters had heard of Rev. Wright either, by the way.

farai: One thing that’s not covered in the documentary is that the Wright story continued, in part because of Wright himself, who continued to take the spotlight. He made an appearance at the National Press Club. Jelani Cobb, who now writes for the New Yorker, wrote this in a 2008 blog post: “In the wake of his press club appearance you heard disparate rumblings that are growing into a chorus of condemnation. The difference is that these jeers are now coming from black people.” So that also mitigated, for Obama, the idea that he had betrayed his pastor.

mikefletcher: And let’s face it, the clips of Rev. Wright’s most inflammatory sermons played into a fear narrative. If the question of whether or not Obama wore a flag pin was news, this was certainly going to be a running story. In a perfect world, it would have been presented in the context of black church traditions, but …

farai: Between the Wright controversy hitting ABC News and the “More Perfect Union” speech and Wright defending himself in venues like the National Press Club, Obama had to constantly reassure black, white and other voters that he was a sort of racial Switzerland — neutral. That was hard to pull off and arguably a testament to his oratory skills and campaign.

harry: What’s interesting here that gets lost now and may get lost to a younger generation is that this election was a pretty big freaking deal. Obama was clearly leading in the elected delegate count (as the documentary shows). He was going to be the Democratic nominee for president at a time when the incumbent Republican president was deeply unpopular. Obama, therefore, was not only likely to be the first non-white major party nominee, but he also had a very good shot at the presidency. And then here comes a story that plays in to the worst fears of a certain segment of white voters, who saw Wright as radical on race and thought maybe he could be offering advice to the next president. The fact that voters saw through that and trusted Obama was a turning point that I’m not sure would have been accomplished 15 years earlier, when a majority of Americans still didn’t believe in interracial marriage.

micah: But this also gets at how the media’s preferred frames — the horse race and “scandal” — miss so much (we’re guilty of this too). You could do an interesting story on Wright, on the black church and on race in American politics in 2008. But that’s not the story (most of) the media told.

natesilver: That’s often the case — the media is interested in scandal and gossip and in some ways is a lot more frivolous than the voting public.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Farai Chideya is a former senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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